In the organisation I work at, I am asked to spend two days a year volunteering to help the community. I will be honest and say that most people I work with just choose something easy or use it as an excuse to do a team-building day. This year I decided to be bold and do the exact opposite.
I was scrolling through the list of approved activities and most of them just seemed like they weren’t really helping anyone. I then came across one that caught my eye, which was “helping the homeless.” Right now I am focused on getting out of my comfort zone and growing in any way that I can.
This activity seemed like the perfect way to do that, so I signed up. When the day came around, I rolled up to the homeless shelter and was not sure what to expect. I have never been homeless myself, nor have I ever seen what it’s like to have nowhere to live.
While I think I have some of the answers to their problems, I am conscious that everyone has the right to make their own choices, and it’s not up to me to judge them or think that I am somehow superior to them.
Below are ten reasons why helping the homeless allowed me to learn so many life changing lessons:
1. It’s all in the beliefs and mindset
The number one lesson I learnt at the homeless shelter was that the one thing every person there was lacking was the belief systems they needed to be successful. When I asked some of the people there why they were homeless, they told me a whole range of excuses and believed that even having a meal was a major challenge.
If each of them were to spend a small amount of time each day changing their mindset, then I am positive they could turn their life around. What I learnt though was that it’s easy for me to do that because I want to, but it’s not so easy for them.
Many of the people I met were happy with their current circumstances or had accepted where they were at so there was no need for them to make any changes. It all starts with a will to change and then the strategy can come later.
2. Giving back feels amazing (trust me)
A selfish lesson I learnt that applies to my own life, which I knew but not to this extent, was that giving back to the community and helping other people feels amazing. My natural behaviour came through my work on the day, and I was nicknamed “The Salesman.”
Even when I am not in a business environment, my true personality shines through, which kind of surprised me. In case you’re wondering, I was nicknamed the salesman because apparently I was overselling the meal options that were available on the day – I can’t help it, it’s my job!
The whole time I was there I had a big smile on my face while I handed out meals, explained how delicious the food was going to be and topped up people’s cups with coffee. I felt privileged to be able to do something for someone else without expecting anything in return.
3. Change your story
One gentleman I met told me how he used to run the train system here in Melbourne before he was made redundant. For the last ten years, he has been homeless. The man was warm, kind, humorous and very charismatic.
Unfortunately, he had lost his identity and had a recurring story in his mind that he couldn’t have that type of responsibility again. He then asked me if he could have a job working for me. I told him how hard he would have to work and at the end of the conversation, he chose to ignore my offer, which was genuine – I don’t think he was ready for change, and it’s not up to me to force him.
What it came down to was that he hadn’t got over the failure of losing his previous job, and he didn’t have the will to change his situation. The story he told himself was now so strong in his mind that it had become his identity.
I got the feeling that he though being homeless was cool in some weird way because it shocked people and got him the attention that he once had when he was the master of the train system.
Sometimes you have to realise that you can’t help everybody even if you want to because not everyone wants to be helped. None the less, if your story is an empowering one, then you will become a leader and attract more followers than you could possibly imagine. Change your story!
4. The environment can bring you down
The people at the homeless shelter mostly came there each day, not so much for the food, but to meet other people in the same situation. This creates a downward spiral for many of them because when they are trying to improve their situation, they are surrounded by people telling them to do the exact opposite.
This is why all successful people know that who you spend time with, and your daily environment, is the difference in you achieving your goals or living on the streets. If you’re someone who is going through a tough time, or you are not sure why you are miserable, then change your environment.
If you spend time with someone who is inspirational for long enough, then the effect will rub off on you. Just like the homeless people experience, the same goes in the opposite direction too. Imagine if we could get a homeless person away from their environment for a few days – do you think it would help them to change their situation?
5. Sugar is used to numb the pain
The thing that scared me at the homeless shelter, which I was not prepared for, was just the sheer volume of sugar that each person consumed. When I asked the chef what the number one item was on the food list each week he told me it was sugar.
I am not joking when I say that some of the people were filling half their coffee cup with sugar. I began to see that sugar for homeless people was a drug-free way of numbing the pain, and it was relatively low cost for them to have access to.
Health and sugar intake are directly linked to people’s socioeconomic status. Most millionaires I have met know that eating healthy is essential to their success, whereas the lower classes in society don’t have the same beliefs.
Be careful of your sugar intake, as it will suck all of your positive energy!
6. One kind act can transform someone’s day
While I was serving breakfast, I noticed a lady that came in crying, and she was very upset. Rather than go over and talk to her (she was in no state) I decided to not judge her and just bring her food. The moment I put a plate of food down and asked her if she wanted coffee, her day was transformed.
Sometimes it’s not what you say but what you do that can change people. One act that shows you care can change the way you are perceived and have a positive impact on other people. It even made me feel good because she stopped crying and enjoyed her food.
7. Clothing and hygiene are essential
The appearance of a homeless person is most noticeable by their clothing. Even if they were to go for a job interview tomorrow, they would probably not be successful because they don’t appear in a good state due to the way they dress.
At the shelter, there is a shower section where homeless people can clean themselves up. As I was coming out of the bathroom, I noticed a man who had just had a shower and was having a shave. He had brand new runners on, but the rest of his clothes were quite old.
By looking at his face, you could tell that he felt better about himself and was going to be able to attack the day with some confidence. This all comes from the way he was dressed and the fact he was clean after his shower. Compared to everyone else, he was the closest person to reaching success that I met.
This lesson applies to everyone. Make sure you try and dress well at all times, brush your teeth, have a shower once a day, keep your facial hair under control and take pride in your appearance. If you don’t, you could be turning away relationships before people even have a chance to get to know you.
8. Reading can be the difference
I noticed in the crowd of homeless people that the ones that appeared to be the least affected by their situation were the ones who were reading books. Many people donate books to the shelter so the homeless people can pick one up and read it.
Some of them used their tough situation to pick up a book and try and learn something that might help them think differently and get beyond where they are in their life. This lesson can apply to us all and I strongly encourage you to read a book or blog post to get some skills and grow your knowledge.
9. All skills are transferable
Even though I have never run a homeless shelter, the skills I have learnt in business are 100% transferrable. Within a few hours I was following the system, assessing stock levels, using my organising skills (keep everything simple) and going to the food bank warehouse to negotiate some more food supplies.
My personality and ability to sell can work in any environment no matter what, and so can yours. It doesn’t matter how little experience you have at something, if you understand the basics of success then you can apply it in any field.
10. The way to solve problems is not through money
Upon entering the homeless shelter, I thought that the ay to solve everybody’s problems there was to go down to the local supermarket and buy everyone’s food (I was naively contemplating doing this). What I learnt by the end of the day is that money is not the issue.
The people that suffer from homelessness suffer from mostly psychological issues that have come from the way they live their life and the values they stand for. Even if I gave each of them ten thousand dollars, they would probably be back to the same scenario in a few weeks.
If we invest money in changing the way homeless people think, and counselling them, then they will have the beliefs they need to create their own success, rather than rely on society. This is because money is just an exchange of value, and you have to have a positive mindset in order to give more than is expected to other people, which in turn creates value (aka money).