If you’ve ever NOT given a person experiencing homelessness money because you just knew they would buy alcohol or drugs, remember this next time…

On cold nights spent outside, alcohol provides temporary warmth. It is also nerve-wracking to sleep in a shelter and difficult to get a good night’s sleep. Alcohol can help an individual relax so they can sleep. Lack of sleep exacerbates mental health issues.

Withdrawals are worse than you could ever imagine. If someone needs to “get their sick off” so be it. Being in severe withdrawal is what drives people to desperate behaviors.

Meth is a stimulant. If you are sleeping outside, vulnerable to anyone and anything, being able to stay vigilant is necessary for survival. This is especially true if you are a woman, trans, or youth.

Being without a home also usually means not eating on the regular or not eating nutritiously. Cigarettes can act as an appetite suppressant. Smoking cigarettes may give some temporary relief from hunger pains.

Bottom line, stop assuming you know the story that brought this individual to this point in their life. Most of us have never known what it feels like to be so desperate that we would have sex for a warm place to sleep or to steal something to survive, or how life-controlling a substance use disorder is.

A large number of people who have not experienced homelessness want to moralize the decisions of poor people, perhaps to comfort themselves about the injustices of the world. For many, it’s easier to think homeless people are, in part, responsible for their suffering than it is to acknowledge the situational factors.

And when you don’t fully understand a person’s context — what it feels like to be them every day, all the small annoyances and major traumas that define their life — it’s easy to impose abstract, rigid expectations on a person’s behavior.

Next time you encounter someone on the side of the road holding a sign, just give them money. It doesn’t matter is it’s the change in your pocket or a $10 bill. Whatever you can give, please, just do it.

The main message it sends to the individual is “I see you and you matter.” Your money will not likely change their situation but it still matters to the individual just trying to get through the day.