BBJ Op-ed: Everyday kindness can help alleviate homelessness

More than a year into the Covid-19pandemic, we must remember the continued needs of some the most vulnerable in our community: those experiencing homelessness.

As individuals and business leaders, it can be easy to let the feelings of being embittered and embattled convince us that we are powerless to effect positive change in our community. However, many of the problems present in our community can, indeed, be alleviated not just by the actions of corporations but by individuals as well. Now more than ever, vulnerable communities may be cut off from the help they need, and even virtually, we as a business community can make a difference. Most companies prior to the pandemic participated in hands-on volunteering experiences. Since the shutdown, the business community has found creative ways to replicate that engagement in a remote world. Even though we have had to stay six feet apart, that shouldn’t stop us from making a noticeable impact on those who need it the most.

Faced with the pandemic, dedicated volunteers and agencies have developed alternate ways to give back while staying safe. Using creativity, and often aided by digital tools, volunteer groups have learned how to support their communities from a distance. Just as the world found ways to accommodate important aspects of life virtually, it is time we apply that same ingenuity to how we giveback to our communities.

One example of this is with The Sullivan Family Moving Ahead Program (MAP) at Massachusetts’ largest day shelter, St. Francis House. This 14-week job and life skills training program has proven to be extremely effective for those experiencing homelessness and struggling to find a job. Yet with the pandemic, the program had to make some alterations. Natixis Investment Managers is one of the key partners that has helped the program continue to thrive and grow amid the pandemic. Together, we have pivoted a once in-person event, the mock job interview, to go virtual. The virtual mock interviews have allowed program students to gain the confidence and skills they need to land a job while offering valuable leadership practice for executives at Natixis. As partners, we are combining our resources, talent and passion to continue making a difference in the community.

This is just one example of a way corporate and nonprofit partners can work together to ignite change in new ways. Not just corporations, but individuals, can make a difference with just a simple act. The streets of Boston are a lonely place for people experiencing homelessness. We are all familiar with our knee-jerk reactions when we see an individual experiencing homelessness asking for help: “I can’t help them.” “I don’t have time to help them.” “My help won’t make a difference.” “They’ll never change.” For many, the reaction is to simply look away. Witnessing homelessness makes us uncomfortable, in part, because we do not want to accept the social, economic and political factors that have created the environment where a segment of our community lacks the basic necessity of a home. Yet, as both an organization and individually, it is our civic responsibility to help improve the quality of life in the communities where we live and work daily.

Maybe you walk or drive by the same person outside your coffeeshop each morning, or at your T stop, or at an intersection. Rather than averting your eyes and trying to pretend the scourge of homelessness does not exist, simply acknowledging that person in the most human way: Eye contact, a smile, a friendly nod, and a simple “hello.” It may, at first, feel uncomfortable, or trite or pointless. But subtle acknowledgements of someone’s existence, repeated and multiplied over weeks, months and years, can help those on the receiving end understand that they are valued — that they have a place in this world, and that the world cares about them and their well-being. That self-worth and self-confidence can help individuals experiencing homelessness find the strength to take tangible steps to improve their lives.

In the end, we have been confronted with the needs of our communities and are coming to terms with the realities that we may not be able to help in person, just yet. But there are many ways we as a business community can make a difference, even from six feet apart.

Karen LaFrazia is president and CEO of St. Francis House, a homelessness nonprofit in Boston. David Giunta is CEO of Natixis Investment Managers US in Boston.