A transient, looking unkempt and destitute, positions himself near the entryway of the supermarket.
He hits you up for spare change.
Whether motivated by guilt, sympathy or maybe a combination of both, you dig some change out of your pocket and hand it over.
We’ve probably all done it.
But it’s exactly what we shouldn’t do, said Cpl. Ginny Johnson, homeless liaison officer with the Fullerton Police Department.
Johnson was among a group of experts who on Saturday, Feb. 18, gave presentations during Homelessness 101, a three-hour seminar held at Wayfare Fullerton, a shared work and gathering space in downtown’s historic Chapman Building.
The 50 or so attendees, many of whom were members of church groups with an honest desire to help, learned about homelessness from all perspectives, from legal definitions of homelessness and its correlation with mental illness to the role of law enforcement and why there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” said Johnson, who knows most of Fullerton’s homeless individuals on a first-name basis. “Typically, their contact with law enforcement has not been positive. That’s where we come in. We try to build that trust.”
Homeless liaison officers partner with the Coast to Coast Foundation and mental health clinicians, providing services to homeless individuals who want help.
“The worst-case scenario is when someone has to get arrested,” Johnson said. “That is not our goal.”
For community members who want to help the homeless, Johnson detailed a series of dos and don’ts.
Well-intentioned volunteers should always be mindful of their safety, Johnson said.
They should take the time to listen and exhibit compassion.
“Treat them as individuals,” Johnson said. “Treat them with respect.”
Volunteers should never do outreach alone, push themselves on an individual or invade anyone’s personal space, Johnson said.
And experts agree that giving a homeless individual money just enables them to remain where they are.
Homelessness 101 is organized every year by Fullerton – Advocating Community Transformation, or ACT, a collaboration of 16 local Christian churches who employ a faith-based approach to helping the homeless, working in partnership with other outreach groups.
Pastor Jason Phillips of Sojourners Community Church in Fullerton, and a chaplain for the Fullerton PD, is a co-director of ACT along with Briana Stickney of RockHarbor Fullerton church.
Phillips became passionate about helping the homeless from his contact with former Fullerton PD Homeless Liaison Officer John “JD” DeCaprio, now retired, who helped spearhead many of the initiatives in place today.
“He kind of woke me up to what was going on,” Phillips said.
Some startling statistics also were presented during the seminar.
On any given night, there are 15,000 homeless people in Orange County, said Ariel Yarrish, founder of Future in Humanity, a nonprofit that helps the homeless get off the streets.
Nationally, 61 percent of the homeless are male and close to 50 percent of all homeless have a chronic disability, she said.
“We should be asking ourselves, as a community, what can we do to help them,” Yarrish said.