Empowering and counseling the homeless

Counseling people who are homeless involves a number of challenges. In addition to not having a home, they are dealing with traumas, mental health issues, addictions and poverty. How can you motivate people in seemingly hopeless situations to make positive changes in their lives?

When traditional therapy doesn’t work

According to Ulf Lidman, a trained therapist specializing in marginalized groups, counselors may need to take a different approach for homeless people. Traditional therapy, where talking through issues is the main focus, will not work for a marginalized person who is in extreme crisis. A person in this situation needs a much more holistic approach.

Seeing the client as an expert of their own life

Ulf has worked extensively with homeless people in the US and across Europe. He now trains counselors and therapists in how to help homeless people change their lives through Motivational Interviewing. This approach focuses on building a close relationship with the client so that together you can find the solutions that are best for them.

Sometimes when people work with the homeless, they can have an attitude – even if it is well intentioned – of how they are going to help this poor homeless person,” Ulf says. “Instead of looking at a homeless person as a receiver of help, we need to see them as a participant in their own lives. We need to evoke the power they have inside themselves to change their life.”

Using Motivational Interviewing to find solutions

Giving their training, counselors may assume that they know what is best for a homeless person, and that by explaining this to the client it will lead to positive changes. To successfully help a homeless person, however, we must recognize them as an expert on their own life. Only they have the life expertise and knowledge about what would work best for them.

Where we have seen long-term success is when people have changed their lives based on their own words, rather than other people’s,” Ulf says. “This is what Motivational Interviewing can help you do. We cannot tell people how to live their lives, but we can evoke their own motivation to live their lives as they want to. We can help them find their smiles again.”

A holistic approach to supporting the homeless

According to Ulf, any solution to helping a homeless person needs to fit where they are today. It needs to include practical steps that get them from survival mode to thinking about their future again. It needs to uncover the passion and dreams they have inside themselves.

“My holistic approach addresses all of the vital areas of a person’s life,” Ulf says. “We need to do more than just talk. We need to practically address mental health issues, addictions, psychosocial networks, their livelihood, housing, and so on. We also need to set realistic goals about what is possible today.”

Therapists must look at what is realistic and achievable for each individual, taking into account who they are and what inner resources they have. Motivational Interviewing helps uncover these resources and reveal the real person behind a “homeless” label. MI can help the individual focus and not become overwhelmed by the many problems that come with homelessness.

Take the next step

If this approach sounds interesting for your organization, contact Ulf about a course in Motivational Interviewing that will be designed for your specific needs.


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