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.