How to Talk to Invisible People

13.05.15 Learn Blog SumoSalad

“Just the feeling inside when people walk past me… they look away, you know, like they can’t see me. Like I’m not there.” – Client of Matthew Talbot Homeless Services

When people experiencing homelessness are asked what they want or miss the most, the answer may surprise you. While money is definitely a necessity in helping their physical needs, it’s their emotional needs that often get neglected and they crave human interaction.

Due to the way many people have been conditioned to ignore the homeless on our streets, it’s easy to dehumanise those sleeping rough and turn them into invisible people.

However many people are experiencing homelessness due to events which could happen to any person. Loss of a job, an unstable relationship or family illness can quickly lead to a situation where your options run out and you are left with very little.

Sadly, people experiencing homelessness actually need a kind conversation more than many of us, and yet are some of the most ignored and unacknowledged people we encounter daily.

Recently the SumoSalad team went to a training session for the Vinnies NSW Night Patrol, which offers nightly meals to people experiencing homelessness around Sydney’s CBD. What struck us was that the people coming to visit the Night Patrol more often than not don’t come for the food; they come for the sense of community and the ability to have a connection with people. For some, this may be the only chance they get to talk to someone all day.

While it can be confronting to have a conversation with someone you don’t know (homeless or not!), you might be surprised what you get talking about with someone experiencing homelessness. To help encourage more Aussies to acknowledge those experiencing homelessness, we’ve put together the following list of Dos and Don’ts when considering having a chat with a disadvantages Aussie.

What to say


1 “Hi, How is your day going?”

This one is pretty simple and easy, even if you don’t have a lot of time to give. Simply being addressed and acknowledged can mean more than you realise, especially for someone who often isn’t even given eye contact.

2 “What’s your name?”

Many people experiencing homelessness also feel faceless and disconnected from their life before becoming homeless. Something as simple as learning their name and greeting them daily helps recognise their existence & individuality, as well as a connection to their heritage and identity.

3 “I don’t have any money, but can I help you any other way?”

Whether you don’t feel comfortable giving your money, or you can’t afford to give it, there is almost certainly another way you can help out. Everyone has individual needs, so starting the conversation might reveal another way you can help out.

4  “Did you watch the game?”

Sport is a great equaliser. No matter what your current situation is, many people share an enthusiasm for sports, so it’s a great way to have a chat. No doubt once you start this conversation you’ll find a passionate team supporter who will know plenty of stats and could mingle with the best commentators! Be prepared for a good chat.

What not to say


It’s easy to be critical or accidentally say something that might cross the boundary of what is information that someone might consider sensitive. Here are some things that you should avoid.

1  “Here’s some money, don’t spend it on drugs or alcohol”

If you decide that you’d like to help out the person you speak to with money, it cannot be given with conditions of use. The person you are talking to might take this offensively, or suffer substance abuse and find this message too confronting. Your gift is an opportunity to open discussion further, but allow the person receiving it to decide where that conversation leads.

2 “Why are you homeless?”

This might seem like a pretty obvious question to ask someone, and no doubt one that you may be curious about, but this can be a very upsetting subject for those experiencing homelessness. Having people ask confronting questions about their present life situation is not always suitable no matter who you are. If the person you are speaking with wants to talk about their situation, they’ll let you know. It’s your job to keep the conversation as positive as possible for this person to make it something they smile about for the rest of the day.

3 “Why don’t you get some help?”

This assumes that the person hasn’t tried to get themselves out of their current situation. They could have been trying various options and rejected for any number of reasons, or they might be unaware of services available to them. Vinnies offer numerous resources which can help them out along with other organisations, so it is more useful to see if there is anything they need assistance with, and then finding a way to point them in the right direction.

4 “Get a job”

This is an insult as it doesn’t take into account an individual’s own situation and relies on assumptions. The person you’re talking to might even have a job! Unfortunately many people on the streets are there because they have lost their jobs or have medical conditions which meant they could no longer do their job.

Just remember, you might be the only person that your new friend speaks to all day. Make sure it’s polite, helpful and respectful of the individual person’s boundaries. Leave the conversation wishing them well for the day ahead, or letting them know that they’ll be in your thoughts and giving them something positive to reflect on for the day.

This winter we are working with Vinnies to help #heatupthestreet and make a difference in the lives of Aussies experiencing homelessness and disadvantage. You can donate to Vinnies at any SumoSalad store nationally, or online here.


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