Homelessness. It’s a problem many of us try to pretend isn’t there. Maybe you’ve seen men and women standing at busy intersections with a cardboard sign saying, “Homeless. Anything helps.” Maybe you’ve awkwardly tried to avoid eye contact because you didn’t know what to do.

Knowledge is power so here are answers to seven questions you might think when you see homelessness.

#7. “Why should we help them? They’re addicts.”

Stereotypes often paint homelessness as the result of drug and alcohol abuse, and while this is true in some cases, people often do not realize drug abuse and alcoholism can be the result of homelessness. Homeless individuals speak that homelessness creates this span of time where there is nothing to do. Drugs and alcohol are cheap enough and a solution to a long amount of time in boredom.

Jesus Christ preached humility and compassion. As Catholics, it is not our place to condemn individuals, even if their lifestyle does not mimic ours. Substance abuse addiction is a serious illness. It is our place to support the individual to heal and overcome their addiction through medication, treatment, and counseling.

#6. “Why should we help them? Maybe they’re homeless because they want to be homeless.”

When people think of the homeless, many assume they are homeless by choice. This thought process is a way to deflect the guilt because they do not want to help homeless strangers. Rarely, if ever, are people homeless out of choice. More frequently, it is a last act of desperation to survive. Not to shock you, but homelessness is not an easy or carefree lifestyle. It is scary, lonely, and miserable. Every year in the United States, homeless individuals die of assault, illness, or suicide.

When you see an individual on the streets or in shelters, do not judge them. Accusing someone of ‘homelessness by choice’ is ridiculous. A negative mindset like this will not assist the homeless in any way. Our faith calls us to unconditional love of humanity, and our response to homelessness should reflect that sentiment.

#5 “Why should we help them? The homeless are ruining our country.”

There are a few images people think of when they hear homeless. Old men with wild hair and ragged clothing often represent homelessness. They think homeless are the parasites of society, living off of government welfare. However, a percentage of the homeless are veterans, suffering from mental or physical illnesses as a result of their service.

As of 2015, 8% of the homeless in the United States were veterans. This amounts to 47,725 individuals that served their country and are currently without permanent, stable residence. 33% of homeless males are veterans. Veterans are often homeless because of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and substance abuse. Men and women risked their lives for the United States and homelessness is a poor reward for their service.

#4. “Why should I help them? Aren’t they just old?”

Youth are plagued by homelessness too. Approximately, 39% of the homeless population are children under 18. American young people are homeless because of many reasons. 40% of homeless youth identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Young people are homeless because of childhood abuse or neglect, foster care, pregnancies, mental health problems, or substance abuse. Often, teens choose between a hostile home and living on the streets. Living on the streets places teenagers in horrible situations such as forced prostitution or drug abuse.

There is no true or realistic image of homelessness, it affects every age, race and gender. It is important not to forget every individual suffering from homelessness. To help teenagers affected by homelessness, you can donate to Catholic Charities of St. Louis. You could donate clothing, hygiene items, birthday packages, or money to your local shelter.

#3 “Why should we help them? Why don’t they just get a job?”

Despite the amount of loud complaining about lazy and incompetent homeless, this is a big misconception about homeless individuals. Many have jobs, but are not able to live off of their low wages. About 25% of homeless individuals have jobs. Despite these jobs, addictions, children, and the high cost of housing perpetuate homelessness.

#2 “Why should we help them? Why don’t they just overcome homelessness?”

Overcoming homelessness is extremely difficult in current society. The cost of living is high enough that even a job cannot solve the problem immediately.

In recent years, cities are passing laws that prohibit certain characteristics of homeless living. From a study conducted of 234 large cities, 40% of those cities prohibited sleeping in public area, 33% of large cities prohibit sitting or lying down in public area, 56% of large cities prohibit loitering in public area and 53% prohibit panhandling in public area. The penalties include fines, a new criminal record and confiscating personal property (tents, bedding, etc.).

These cities are criminalizing homelessness to put poverty out of public eye. If a person is fined for issues related to homelessness, how are they expected to pay that fine and still overcome homelessness? If a person carries a criminal record of even minor transgressions related to homelessness, how are they expected to acquire a job?

#1 – “How can I help?”

It is so easy to complain about the way things are or corrupt, dishonest, and lazy politicians. You might complain about how the government handles the homeless, whether that be the government giving too much or not enough. Despite all of the talk about homelessness, few people choose to take action to end homelessness.

There are more than a few things you can do. There is not a lack of food in America, but a lack of easily accessible quality food. Donate gift cards or store credit to a store where homeless individuals can buy fresh fruit or vegetables. Donate gently used clothes, linens, and toys.  Research and fund charities. Spread the word about ending homelessness. When a person is homeless, it is almost as if they have lost their dignity. Smile, make eye contact, nod, ‘good morning’ or ‘good afternoon’, when you pass them on the street as you do with everyone else. You are not better than anyone else but neither should you pity them. Do what you can, and be at peace.