Helping the Homeless: Where to Begin?

There’s a homeless man who works the corners of downtown Indianapolis with the sign “Why lie?  It’s for beer.”  I’ll tell you the truth, I can’t resist that guy and always end up giving him a dollar or change.*  People say that I may only be enabling him or giving him the means to keep hurting themselves.  And I struggle, because when I see someone who is thirsty (beer aside), isn’t it the right response  to reach out and give them something to drink?  It’s the tension we live in.

With so much evil in the world, so much wrong, so much hurting, it’s hard to keep from being overwhelmed or know where to begin.  People are often good-hearted and generous and can’t see people going in need around them and not do something.  They provide help on a variety of levels.  Some are called to volunteer, to pursue helping others as a vocation, participating in relational ministry on a personal level, or to offer support financially or with prayers.  There are those in government involved in shaping public policy as well as other non-profit organizations.

With verses like “’I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’” (Matthew 25:40) and “If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?” (I John 3:17), churches are charged to take care of the poor.  Some churches are on the front lines dealing with various aspects of homelessness and that’s not including any parachurch ministries, such as Outreach Inc.

We in the United States are some of the richest people on the planet, yet most of us live separated from the poverty around us as if it doesn’t affect us.  We may remember our homeless at thanksgiving and Christmas, and keep meaning to do more, then we return/get caught up in the busyness of our lives.  Or, filled with good intentions, we go out and haphazardly give.  And when we do take notice, it’s like we believe that unless they live like we do, “they” need to be saved, as opposed to us all needing to be saved and each of us being in a position to learn from one another.

So my family and I often talk to homeless people.*   My oldest son especially has a heart for homeless people.  One day we were out visiting the Super Hero Museum (before it closed).  We stopped to talk to a pair of homeless gentlemen.  Out the clear of the blue, one asked if it would be okay to pray for my sons.  Sure, there was a twinge of unease at first, all strangers/people encounters are fraught with inherent hesitations and awkwardness in that dance of getting to know one another.  On the other hand, his prayer was a blessing.  We’re as careful and prudent as we are with any strangers.  That said, all strangers are human, created in the image of God.  The homeless can go days, weeks, months without the simple contact of others.

There is no “one size fits” all recipe for dealing with issues of poverty and homelessness.  The wrong mentality, despite the urge, is to leap in with an “I am here to save you”/super hero/white knight syndrome.  More often than not, this paternalistic attitude can undermine the development of the people you’re trying to help, stifling their initiative and stewardship.   You don’t do for others what they can do for themselves.

Poverty and homelessness is such a multi-pronged problem covering a variety of physical, emotional, spiritual, and social needs; and involves matters of economic development, health, and education.  The strategies tend to be holistic in nature.  Overall, the general strategy in helping the poor follows three paths:  Relief (using the metaphor of poverty as a wound, this would be the kind of urgent, emergency, temporary aid applied seldom and immediately); Rehabilitation (which begins as soon as bleeding stops and seeks to restore community); and then Development (the process of ongoing change.  If the Story is about “The Fall”, then the journey involves bringing them closer to being in right relationship with God, self, others, and creation).

A continuum of need presents a continuum of solutions.  We can’t just haphazardly drop off food and supplies; while well-meaning, if you don’t know folks’ particular situation, you may be doing more harm than good in the long run.  Better to support the local agencies “on the ground”/frontlines that teach people “how to fish”.  I know some folks who have chosen to “living simply so that others can simply live”, changing their lifestyle and using their money to change one or two lives.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of the relational model, talking and getting to know people; finding out their specific needs while walking along side them.  We don’t need super heroes, only people who care enough to reach out to someone around them.

*For matters of complete disclosure, my wife “treats homeless people like telemarketers”:  she’ll give them money rather than listen to their whole story.

Poor People Aren’t Grateful

Hurricane Gilbert struck the island of Jamaica back in 1988.  As is typical in many natural disasters, the government was either slow to react due to being overwhelmed or due to actions which may be characterized as … idiotic.  Not surprisingly, the tourist areas of Jamaica were the first ones brought “back to normal” after the disaster … which meant that many of the actual people of Jamaica were left struggling.  Being from Jamaica, I remember my mother being practically a one woman relief effort.  Collecting donations, traveling back and forth, doling out much needed supplies and aid, she was every bit a force of nature as Gilbert.

One of my cousins from Jamaica, about my age, confided in me that she wanted no part of the clothes.  I found this to be an interesting response.  Surely the clothes my mother was bringing had to be better than the ones my cousin had, especially given the circumstances.  However, as she put it, she didn’t want to be a part of someone’s feel good efforts and wanted some new clothes.  After all, we (collective American we, as my mother had rallied several churches in her efforts) had so much and were basically giving up leftovers.  It’s not like it actually cost us anything.

Now, I’ve thought about her words and wrestled with them.  My first reaction was “beggars can’t be choosers” and “how dare she think we [I had taken this personally] ‘had so much’” as I recalled how little money we seemed to have.  And I was left thinking that poor folks just ain’t grateful.

Reflecting back on that event, there is some truth and plenty of non-truth in my thinking.

There are times when our need, or rather, the way we choose to swoop in and help comes across as patronizing.  Essentially, we’re coming in to fix those poor people, and make sure they measure up to our standards.  Sometimes in our rush to “save” them, we reduce them to objects to work out our faith upon.

Whether we realize it or not, we have a sense of superiority which sometimes comes across even when we’re going something positive like helping those “less fortunate” than us.  It’s as if we are saying (whether spoken aloud or through the tenor of our actions) “I have my act together” or “I went to school and made good decisions and worked hard”, neither of which is bad, unless it gives the attitude of being superior.  When we see others, it should be through the lens of mutual brokenness.  We each have problems, issues, AND value.

Someone may be in material need or have issues of time management or budgetary priorities that they may be struggling with.  Others may, even through their acts of kindness and generosity, generate pride (“Look at how holy I am”).  Maybe we need to not so much think in terms of “how do we fix the poor?”, but rather “how can God fix us both?”  This may not seem like a big deal, after all, who cares what your attitude is if they’re getting a meal or clothes on their back.  “They should be grateful.”

Here’s one thing we don’t often consider when helping the poor:  part of that help has to restore their sense of dignity.  The poverty they are dealing with may not solely be a poverty of material, but also a poverty of being, lack of self-worth.  Instead of realizing they have been created in image of God, with inherent worth and dignity, they have been made to feel inferior.  Poverty brings with it feelings of shame, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, voicelessness, inferiority, personal worthlessness, despair.  You don’t think there’s any shame and inadequacy at their situation, much less being reduced to someone’s pet project.

So the havenots battle with shame even as the haves battle with pride.  In the torrent of hand me down heaven (the haves recycling our “junk”, not really sacrificing anything and yet patting ourselves on our backs) the have-nots wrestle with loss of meaning and loss of hope.  Both in a state of mutual brokenness, both having something to learn and something to offer.  True motives and true assessment of needs can best be done in relationship with someone.  It didn’t take long to tease out that my cousin was caught up in a moment of material lust, somehow feeling entitled to designer outfits.  That attitude needed to be checked.  However, it didn’t change the fact that when one is poor, when one struggles with having any sense of dignity, a new outfit can also help restore a sense of worth.

And I know, a “thank you” is always nice.  Cause sometimes even the gesture, whatever the motive, needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.