“How can I help someone who’s homeless?”

As the head of Interfaith Community Services, a large social services agency that serves homeless people, I’m often asked that question.

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I’ve heard it even more as San Diego’s homeless population continues to climb. Last year more than 11,762 individuals and families became newly homeless in San Diego County. That is a tragedy.

The good news is that the people of our community – led primarily by nonprofit service providers in partnership with government agencies and volunteers – helped more than 7,402 households overcome homelessness and move into their own home within that same time period.

But the problem is getting measurably worse. More people are living, and even dying, on the streets of San Diego County.

So how can you help? Let’s turn to Rex for some ideas (Rex asked that his last name not be used). Rex is a veteran who overcame homelessness this year. I know him from his time in Interfaith’s homeless veterans housing program, but my most recent encounter with him was different. He came by the office last week to show off his new work truck, purchased by his own hard-earned dollars. He was also there to hire one of our homeless clients for day labor.

Rex wanted to help someone the same way he was helped out of homelessness. When Rex was living in our vets housing program, Interfaith began renovations on a building that would ultimately house homeless men and women exiting local hospitals. Our general contractor was looking for skilled workers for the job, and we recommended Rex. We weren’t asking for charity, and neither was Rex. He has the skills and the experience they were looking for. And best yet, Interfaith had screened Rex, knew him well and could recommend him with confidence.

Rex was promoted from temporary to permanent, able to take on more jobs once he saved enough to buy his own work truck.

So how can you help the homeless? Be like Rex and hire skilled, screened, hardworking people through organizations like Interfaith, Father Joe’s Villages, Veterans Village of San Diego, Alpha Project and others.

Rex moved into his own home earlier this year. Problem was, he didn’t have much. Thanks to caring community members, though, Interfaith doesn’t move people into empty apartments. Individuals, families and faith groups furnish these new places to turn them into true homes. A group of five Presbyterian churches has banded together in North County to help nearly every formerly homeless veteran that Interfaith moves into permanent housing by providing the dishes, pots, pans, bedding and other essentials. They’re also serving as volunteer mentors to provide an additional support network.

Get involved as a volunteer. If you can make a longer-term commitment to directly help an individual, the right organization can train and connect you. If donating household goods is more in line with your availability, do that. It all helps.

For many, mental illness and substance abuse present further challenges. All of these issues are treatable, though, if the individual in question can be connected to the right resources. But that’s easier said than done.

The right resources aren’t always available. And too often, resources are difficult to access, due to transportation, confusing systems of care or eligibility requirements. Finally – and this may be where each of us can make the biggest difference – individuals who are homeless have often lost hope and feel so disconnected that even accessing resources can seem alien.

Another way to help the most vulnerable homeless people: Talk to them. Ask them how they are doing. Ask them about their lives. Everyone is different, we all know that, but when was the last time you sat down and heard the story of that person you usually just pass by on the streets? The time you take to visit with a person in crisis can make a real difference. Let them know just by listening that you care. Then, ask if they’re interested in resources and people that may be able to help.

Familiarize yourself with the local agencies and groups that serve the homeless by researching online or by calling San Diego 2-1-1, a service that connects people with the right services. Connect homeless people with the agencies and groups that can do the deep-dive work to make a difference.

That is, by the way, exactly how Rex came to Interfaith. Like many people who are homeless, he had not heard of our organization or what we could do to help him get off the streets.

You can help those who are homeless. Help them become the next Rex. Maybe the next time you see them, they’ll be the ones doing the hiring.

Greg Anglea is executive director of Interfaith Community Services. Anglea’s commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

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