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Every day, when I go to work, I pass by a homeless person. At first, I just waved hello to them, but now I shake hands with them and, when doing that, they will start asking me questions (like "how are you?").

I believe they want to have a conversation and feel like a human being but, as someone on the autism spectrum, I struggle to know what to answer them and how to do the conversation.

When they ask me how I am, I do want to give them a meaning-full answer (something more than just a "fine, and you?") but I'm also afraid that talking about how work is going for me would be inconsiderate (since they don't have a job). As a result of this, I do answer with a "fine, and you?" and, since I don't know what to say afterward, the conversation just day (then I say "Have a good day" and I go to work).

I went them to know that I care (at least a little) about them and their well being. I would like them to know that I think of them as a real human being and not as some sort of furniture or nuisance.

So, how could I keep the conversation going while not being inconsiderate and also showing my interest in their well-being?

More details about this homeless person:

They have a small dog, they suffer from diabetes, some days they aren't here but I don't know why (and I'm afraid that asking them might be too intrusive/rude).

  • 3
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I dont think you need to focus so much on WHAT to say, but just the fact that you are talking to them.

According to Open Democracy, a lot of homeless people are lonely,

77% of homeless people often or sometimes feel lonely, according to a survey undertaken by Crisis in 2015. That’s more than three times the level of loneliness amongst the middle-aged and older.

I think just knowing that someone has come over to talk to them, to spend some time out of their journey to work to speak to them makes them feel like they are important and matter. Sure topics may be hard, but even going over to say hi will make them feel so much better.

You could ask them how their dog is doing, or ask them if they've ever read [your favourite book]. You could tell them about something you saw on your way to work.

I want them to know that I care (at least a little) about them and their well being. I would like them to know that I think of them as a real human being and not as some sort of furniture or nuisance.

Use body language to make them feel better, such as eye contact, smiling, nodding in agreement. These are all nice cues that tell the person you are friendly and interested in them.

According to this Quora question, with response to "what do homeless people wish other people knew", one homeless man stated

You can talk to us! You can invite us to a movie, or sit down and talk about bullshit with us, ask our advice about romance, discuss pokemon strategies or trade baking recipes.

Like I say, it's not so much what you say, but the fact that you talk to them may make their day that little bit easier. Keep doing what you're doing, and may every person reading this do the same.

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    Body language and eye contact will be especially difficult for the OP, since they declare they are on the autism spectrum. – Chrglmgl Oct 15 at 12:56
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    ok but smiling can still be done – Chillin' Oct 15 at 13:08
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I've worked with homeless people weekly for couple months per year over 2-3 years at a winter shelter (Toronto, Canada). You are already doing far, far more than most people (eye contact, shake hands, have a conversation).

From a respected mentor, here are the things that homeless people appreciate:

Eye contact:

Most people walk by and try to avoid them. They are treated like garbage (literally) and people walk around them. Basic eye contact, even when you do not want to give them anything, is a step up from outright ignoring them or shunning them like plague victims.

Shake Hands:

This is an amazing thing you did by getting into their personal space. This type of connection to another person, that we take for granted, is no longer readily available to them. Even homeless are distrustful of other homeless because they're more keenly aware of what goings on by being there all the time. They may have to hang around that junkie they know is violent because they have no where else to go.

Conversation:

You don't need to work yourself up too much about "saying the right thing". Having basic curiosity about them is all it takes. If you haven't see them for couple days, asking shouldn't be offensive, because you want to know. If you then try to give him unsolicited advice, then it is crossing the line (not just for homeless people, but anyone in general). Ask about their life, answer his questions to the level you're comfortable, and that's going to add a lot to this man's life.

  • From my experience some of them will be cautious and fear you, some will try to take advantage of you or even be aggressive and some will follow you like lost puppies. They will behave like mistreated animals because they are dealt with as such for many people. To make them feel human again do the only thing you cannot to for the cutest puppy, listen to what they have to say – jean Oct 15 at 14:08
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The answer is actually quite obvious:

ask them!

If you start the conversation (after the hello/how are you?/fine you?/ok ok ...) with a genuine interest in how they feel, you'll achieve exactly what you are asking for here. Asking how they would feel about you talking happily about your work shows them 2 things:

1) That you are willing to give them attention (see 'Chillin's answer, they covered that part really well already).
2) That you are trying to be considerate but don't know the best way.

I don't have experience with talking to homeless people myself but I do have experience talking with disabled or otherwise unfortunate people. It has always turned out great when I asked them how they feel when talking about the "normal" days.

Sometimes they don't want to be reminded so you can look together for other subjects you both feel comfortable talking about. In case of my lonely handicapped friend, she actually loved hearing about the positive things happening in my life. By talking in the same way as I would with anyone else, she get's to experience being "normal" herself. It made her feel that I truly treated her as a normal person, so that she was more than her disability.

We can't know for sure how your homeless acquaintance would like talking about your work, but I wouldn't be surprised if he would love it, even if it's just so he can feel normal during your talk(s) again.

The only ones that can answer that question, how they feel talking about certain topics, are they themselves.


OP asked "How to do the asking part" when you're shy and would feel weird directly asking.

I don't really know how to overcome your own shyness. My own solution is just do it and if it's taken badly explain afterwards that you didn't intend it that way but are genuinely curious.

You could go with something like this:

[saying hi/how are you /...]
[short silence]
I've been meaning to ask you something ... I'd like to talk with you about my everyday life but I'm a bit afraid of how you'd take it. Would you enjoy hearing about the happy stuff that happened to me or would you prefer talking about other things?

Give them some time afterwards if needed. Preferably put a gentle smile on your face to show that you really are interested in talking with them. Then they can respond however way they want.

Based on absolutely no experience with homeless people but on my experience with friends/family who are locked up in their house and are deprived of human contact outside of a random monthly visit I would expect one of the folowing responses:

In case they've been deprived of basic human interactions for way longer than anyone would dare to admit (hopefuly really unlikely):

  • [start crying] ... thank you ... (<- good time to offer a hug if you are ok with that too).

In case they're just mostly shutting themselves out from reality yet don't want any trouble:

  • Oh don't bother, I don't mind being on my own, you're better of chatting with your friends instead.
  • [other generic response that tries to get you to move along without starting a discussion]

What I personally think is the most likely response:

  • Oh I'd love to hear about you more! Please do tell.

You really can't do much wrong when you're showing genuine interest in people. There may be some uncomfortable moments yes, but overall it'll be a positive experience. You'll just have to try and then go from there.

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I would like to add a few thoughts to the excellent answers already given. I used to visit a homeless shelter once a week for a period of about 5 years, and it never ceased to make me feel humbled and thankful. Kindness shown towards others, especially those less fortunate, not only brightens their lives, but also changes YOU in the best possible ways.

Here are a few things I would recommend keeping in mind:

Be quick to listen, slow to speak

As I'm sure you can imagine, everyone has advice for homeless people. And trust me, they've heard it all. Many of them know exactly what they should do, but lack the willpower, strength, mental health, or other resources to accomplish it. As you listen, you will discover that each homeless person has a unique story and set of circumstances, which makes "one-size-fits-all" advice rather unhelpful. Listening to their stories puts you in the best possible position to be a true help to them.

Remember details about their lives

As they open up to you, it means so much that you remember the details of their lives. You already have a great start on this, I can see! It is so powerful to ask someone, "Did your mom's operation go well yesterday?"

If they don't feel like talking...

We all have down days sometimes, but the homeless have them far more often than the rest of us, for obvious reasons. Sometimes a person who I've been talking to will one day not want to talk at all. If you're comfortable with it, you might say some of these things to let them know you care:

  • "I'm sorry you're having a rough day."
  • "Is there anything I can pray for?"
  • "Maybe we can talk about it tomorrow."

Physical touch

This one can be tricky, since it depends on what you and the homeless person feel comfortable with. Remember that many homeless people haven't felt a kind arm around their shoulders for a very long time. It may be just what they need. Be cautious, though, as everyone is different, and you don't know all of their history.

Stay humble

This is probably the most important one. I have met homeless teenagers who should still be in high school, and I've also met an elderly woman with a British accent who was a grandmother. I would never have guessed any of them were homeless. So it's good to remind ourselves that under the wrong circumstances, that could be me.

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