Lessons From A Week Spent Living With The Homeless Of Los Angeles

Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts. And we are never, ever the same.

It’s one thing to hear about something or read about something. But it’s quite another to actually experience something.

That’s why I include heavy amounts of interaction and experiential learning in all my keynotes and seminars. I know that’s the best way for people to learn and apply what they learn. In fact, I even tell the people who call to book me, “If you want a speaker who simply gives a straight lecture and shows a thousand Power Point slides, I’m not your guy.”

Well this last week I had the opportunity to experience something very powerful. Instead of simply hearing about or reading about the poor or the homeless, I spent a week with them in the poorest sections and skid row sections of Los Angeles. And I learned … or re-learned … some lessons that have an application for all of us that want to be better communicators, better motivators, and better relationship builders.

=> 1. Avoid pre-judgments.

Stereotypes are frequently wrong. People are often different than we expect. So be very careful of “lumping” people into a category and assuming “they’re all the same” … because they’re not.

As I walked the streets of LA, I encountered men and women, young and old, from all ethnic groups, with many different levels of education. Poverty and skid row does not seem to specialize in any one group or any one type.

The same is true in your company. Before you decide that all whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, managers, or employees are “all the same,” take time to get to know people as individuals. You’ll be amazed at the diversity you never knew existed … right there in front of you … right below the surface. And you’ll learn a lot from people who aren’t exactly like you.

Jedi was one such person. As I spent the evening hours on skid row with Jedi, I never expected what this tall, handsome, well-educated, black fellow with dreadlocks, tattered pants and a scruffy shirt was about to tell me. He mentioned how a few years earlier he was a case worker who passed out government benefits to the poor and homeless. He cared about them, as he said, but on another level it was just a job.

Then unexpectedly he lost his job, followed by the loss of his house, wife and kids. Within weeks he was homeless and spent the next three years on the very same streets of skid row we were cruising. It changed his life, as he said, to the point where he started to REALLY care about the homeless and now spent his life serving them … hoping to give them a hand up instead of just a hand out.

I learned not to pre-judge the homeless … or anyone else for that matter. My head kept ringing with a phrase I learned years ago but have sometimes forgotten, the phrase that says, “There, but by the grace of God, go I.”

=> 2. Greet people.

Greet more people than you normally do. Greet people you don’t even know. Get out of your comfort zone.

I know I was out of my comfort zone … going up to people in some of the most distressed parts of LA … greeting them … and starting conversations with them. I somewhat figured I would be rebuffed or panhandled.

That was not the case at all. Only one person asked me for money. One person swore at me. And two people asked if I could help them get a blanket.

BUT, 99.9% of the people I met and interacted with were delighted. They thanked me for greeting them, for looking them in the eye, and for taking the time to talk to them. They thanked me for making them feel like they were real human beings worthy of acknowledgement. In fact, many of them said “God bless you” as we finished our conversation and I walked away. That was a stunner.

There’s a lesson in this for all of us. We’re all the most comfortable around PLU’s (People Like Us), and we naturally shy away from others who seem quite different. But if you take the time to greet people and show interest in them, more often than not people will appreciate it.

Now I realize some of you work with people who are persistently negative or nonresponsive. You’ve greeted those difficult people on several occasions … or offered them a “Good morning” time after time … but have never gotten a response from them. That’s okay. Keep on doing it anyway. You do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do.

=> 3. Listen.

Few things are more valuable than time, and when you truly listen to people you’re giving them the precious gift of your time. They know it, and they feel it … big time. It’s a tremendous affirmation.

I spent thirty minutes listening to homeless Joe as he sat against the wall of the Catholic mission in LA. He talked about being an Army Viet Nam vet and seeing things in Viet Nam that no one should ever have to see. He was haunted by the memories and haunted by the fact that he wasn’t able to do anything to stop the atrocities he witnessed.

However, my simple listening … without judgment, correction, or contradiction … seemed to ease some of his pain. After all, listening sends the message that … you’re still okay … and … you still have value.

So yes, listening is certainly good for the other person, but it’s also good for you and me as well. We’re bound to learn something. I know I did after listening to Dave and Heather, a couple more vets living on the streets of LA. I listened to their life stories, their struggle with alcohol, and several other subjects. But they taught me a great deal about hope, persistence, and faith.

Instead of being bitter about their circumstances, they talked about going to an AA meeting almost every day so they could overcome their problems. Heather even pulled a little booklet out of her shopping cart that listed the times and places of every AA meeting throughout LA. They taught me two lessons: 1) Where you’re at is not nearly as important as where you’re headed, and 2) Your attitude toward your problem is the most important factor in overcoming your problem.

And then they really shocked me. As I was about to finish our conversation and say goodbye, they asked me a question. They asked, “Do you know what we pray for every day?” Considering their circumstances, I figured they would say something like money, a job, an apartment, a car, or a thousand other things. Before I had a chance to answer their question, they said, “We pray every day that God would increase our faith.” They taught me about the importance of keeping our priorities straight.

As I mentioned earlier in this “Tuesday Tip,” if you want to become a better communicator, a better motivator, or a better relationship builder, you’ve got to do certain things. And listening is one of those absolutely critical, non-negotiable behaviors you’ve got to do.

And finally, one of the lessons I picked up on the street is to…

=> 4. Ask the other person what he needs.

If you’re in sales, you already know about this basic principle. You’ve got to discover the needs of your prospect and fill those needs … if you want a profitable, productive relationship. The same truth applies to your role as a manager, supervisor, team leader, employee, parent or spouse. Positive, win-win relationships are built on the foundation of meeting one another’s needs.

The catch is … you’ve got to ASK. You may not know what the other person’s needs might be. You might think your employee wants a pay raise, but deep down he may need respect more than anything else. You might think your spouse knows you love her, but she may need a bouquet of flowers every once in a while to really feel loved. So don’t presume to know the other person’s needs. ASK.

When I was working with the homeless, when I asked them what they needed, I got an answer I never expected. The most common request was prayer. Tattooed, shaved-head Mike was one example. He asked me to pray that he might get a job, get a place to live, get off drugs, and help his ex-girlfriend get off drugs.

Then there was Jorge, laying on a cardboard box about 9 p.m. in skid row. As soon as the subject of prayer came up, an aura of reverence came over him. He sat up, took off his hat, thrust his hands into my hands, closed his eyes, and lowered his head. He couldn’t have been more soft and gentle as he asked me to pray for his family he hadn’t seen in five years.

When I finished my evening rounds on skid row and headed back to the Jonah Project, a stranger handed me a sheet of paper containing “The Knots Prayer.” It seemed to fit so well with all the needs I heard the homeless people express. And whether or not you believe in a Higher Power, I thought the poem made great psychological sense. It said:

“Dear God: Please untie the knots that are in my mind, my heart and my life. Remove the have nots, the can nots and the do nots that I have in my mind. Erase the will nots, may nots, might nots that may find a home in my heart. Release me from the could nots, would nots and should nots that obstruct my life. And most of all, Dear God, I ask you remove from my mind, my heart and my life all of the ‘am nots’ that I have allowed to hold me back, especially the thought that I am not good enough. Amen.”

Again, there’s a lesson for all of us. If you want to start a relationship, build a relationship, or strengthen a relationship, find out what the other needs and do your best to fill that need.

As I sit back in my office, reflecting on my week, working with the homeless, I am once again reminded that people are people.

Meeting planners and audience members will often ask me how people are different in different parts of the US or different parts of the world, or they’ll ask me how people are different in different industries. They figure I must know because I’ve spoken to a large variety of audiences in many parts of the world. I simply tell them what I’ve learned … that people’s styles and approaches may vary from place to place … but underneath it all … people are people. They all have similar needs and there are a few critical skills that work with just about everybody. Master those skills and you’ll be in great shape.

Action:  Greet 5 new people this week. Do it with a smile. Offer an uplifting comment. Go ahead … make somebody’s day.