Friday, May 12, 2006

How To Help The Homeless

A woman from Portland is seriously considering a coalition of churches in the area to assist the homeless. She didn't have many practical ideas, so this is my essay in response to her:

The heart of compassion in the United States sees the plight of the homeless. They know that God hears their cries, and feel that God is calling them to accomplish a work to assist these lowest of low, the poor and needy. What can we do? So many Christians have done so many works among the homeless, but the problem still remains. What can really be done to heal these people?

Who are the Homeless?
Before we can answer this question, we must first understand what homelessness is. Homelessness is not about not having a house. The real question is: what are the reasons the homeless can not obtain regular housing? Housing, of course, is not something one can solve in a short period of time. Housing is to be obtained on a monthly, daily basis—whether one pays rent or a mortgage. And so homelessness is not caused by any particular incident, such as the loss of a job. The basic issue of homelessness is not just poverty or addiction. Rather, it is an overall inability to function in our American economic system.
The requirements of an individual in the Western economic system is complex. One must have a variety of skills, including—multitasking, basic math, functional literacy, listening and communication abilities, control over one’s emotions, quick decision making, obedience to difficult employers and the energy to endure a forty-hour work week. Our ancestors were mostly subsistence farmers, and these skills, while helpful, were unnecessary for success in that agricultural system. However, if a person is born without ability in even one of these areas, that person is economically crippled for the rest of their lives. If someone has two or more of these areas missing in their lives, then they become economically destitute.
These are the homeless. At least one third of all homeless people have some sort of mental illness—whether diagnosed or not. Some are born with a mental illness, others have it developed over time. Many have been crippled from a young age because of experimenting with drugs or alcohol, which damaged not their intelligence, but their social and processing abilities. Many have experienced severe trauma—like child abuse or participation in a war—and so have been socially crippled.
But many have suffered such difficulties and yet pulled through economically. Some born with autism are functioning even on the professional level. Others with post traumatic stress syndrome have succeeded in amazing ways. Others who have abused themselves with drugs or alcohol have pulled through with economic success. Why have the homeless not pulled through to economic normalcy?
There are two other common characteristics of the homeless. One is that they have little or no support network. Their family rejected them, they have no real friends who are economically independent. Thus, when the many weaknesses in the floor of our economic system fell in on them, they had no one to pull them up. Without a social support network, we are all extremely vulnerable, and in some cases, helpless.
The other common characteristic of the homeless is shame. The homeless understand that, whether through their own fault or through some inner weakness, they have failed in their basic responsibility to society—to be productive. In our society, success is measured to what degree one achieved the American Dream—material security and plenty. But many may be considered full citizens without achieving such success. And citizenship—membership in our society—is determined by productivity. Having a full time job is productive. Raising children to adulthood is productive. Even doing volunteer work most of one’s week is productive, although not as productive as "real" work.
But the chronic homeless, due to their inability to function in our economic system, are disrespected. Our culture can approve of pornographers that make enough money to support themselves, but they cannot respect a persons whose only recourse is begging or dumpster diving—no matter how much work such occupations require. These are shamed in every measure possible. Not only are they dependent on others for their survival, they are given unreasonable demands in order to obtain the basics of their survival. They are mocked by the general populace and denigrated to their face by passersby. They are despised by their families and forgotten by their old friends. The more helpless are regularly beaten by suburban teenagers, looking for excitement. The homeless are the recipients of pity or scorn or a handout or apathy. But one thing they never receive is equality.
And so the homeless develop their own culture. A culture, it is true, that supports denial and false honor, but that is simply because they cannot endure more shame. It is a culture which is devoted to eradicating guilt and dishonor. Some chose the route of forgetting their lives and becoming an imaginary person through drugs or alcohol. Some pursue religion in their own individual, eccentric manner. Some bounce from community to community, attempting to find anyone who will accept them for who they are and not place too many demands on them. Some continually make attempts to re-enter the economic forces that they already failed in. Many of them fail again and again, causing their shame to deepen until unbearable. And so they return to their half-destroyed community, ready to escape their shame again, by any means possible.

What are the needs of the homeless?
In looking to minister to the homeless, one would naturally ask what their needs are. Of course, the best way to discover their needs is to ask them. Too often have ignorant but well-meaning middle class Christians have determined how they are going to "minister to the homeless", or equally ignorant politicians make sounds about "solving" the homeless "problem." However, these lay ministers and politicians don’t have the first idea of what homelessness is really about. They create in their minds an idea of homelessness, fueled by the equally ignorant, judgmental-then-pity-filled media, and then create in their minds the solution to the problem that actually only exists in their minds.
If I had my preference, it would be law that every congressperson, judge, state senator, mayor, principal of any school over elementary, and church leader, before they took their office, would spend a week being homeless, led around by a homeless man, wearing the clothes one receives on the street. It would only be a taste of poverty and lowliness, but it might give them an idea of what the homeless deal with on a day to day basis.
However, since such a law can never be passed in our present system, the next best thing would be to ask and listen to homeless people. What do they say they need? What help do they really look for? Should one spend years interviewing hundreds of homeless folks, one might know what they really are seeking. Below are the results of the responses I received over ten years. It does not replace speaking with and understanding the homeless oneself, but the few insights I have collected are a step in the right direction:
For the first few months, in asking the homeless what they need, we would probably only get an answer about their physical needs. No, these are not their deepest needs, but until one has relationship with the homeless, they cannot trust us with the real answers. They will tell us that they need open access to bathrooms, because most bathrooms are closed to them and in an urban setting urinating in public is illegal. Perhaps they might tell you that in their area they have no access to free clothing. Or perhaps they will tell you that they need food given them before they go to work. Perhaps they will tell you that they have difficulty getting a shower, even once a week. Maybe they will mention how important it is for them to have foot care and that clean socks and healing lotion for their feet are like gold. If it is rainy or cold, they will tell you how hard it is to keep themselves warm and dry out on the street. They may say they need blankets or sleeping bags or tarps or tents. Some will be so bold as to ask for a motel room. All this is true, and necessary. All this we are told by God to provide. But benevolence is insufficient to provide ministry, true spirituality to the homeless. It is an excellent place to begin, and it meets the "felt" needs of the homeless. But there are deeper needs than these.
I have been told that the homeless need an opportunity to work. But their need is not for a forty-hour a week job, nor is it really for a few hours work. Most homeless can work and greatly desire work—this is one way to overcome their shame. However, most homeless also are unable to work every day, or, depending, even every other day. Some can’t do just any job, but their work has to avoid their issues or problems. Some can’t work with other people. Some can’t do heavy labor. Others have difficulty functioning in an office setting. Others cannot endure harsh-sounding commands. It all depends. So the work that would need to be offered is flexible work. Ideally, flexible work that would be available many days of the week, but didn’t actually depend on them to be there every day. This is difficult to achieve, but perhaps we might better understand why the derisive comment, "Just get a job" is so false. One homeless brother thought of a job bank that would request Christians to offer the homeless temporary work and there would be a place with chairs, a phone and a receptionist who might mediate between employers and potential laborers. Somewhat like a flexible day labor service, but the employer pays the laborers directly.
Other homeless expressed the need of a place to stay when ill, even if it’s just a stomach flu. Some homeless will often catch pneumonia or have broken bones, and it is almost impossible to heal on the street, forced to walk miles from meal to meal. If there was a place of rest where the homeless could heal, that would be wonderful
We are still in the arena of standard "homeless ministry"-- benevolence. However, there is a whole realm of things that the homeless value, that they might never express, except to those they consider their true friends. The homeless desperately need honor and respect from those who care for them. They need friendly social interaction. They need people to not treat them as dogs or as projects, but as good human beings. They need to be able to be free to call someone up just to talk, if they want, or to show up at someone’s house and not feel like they are an intrusion. They need to know that someone cares enough to pray for them and to listen to their real hopes and desires and not judge them for it. The homeless need friends, not who will selfishly take advantage of them, nor who will use them to cover up their guilt for being suburban. They need people who show them that they really care. The glue between benevolence and spiritual ministry is encouraging relationship.
Even more than this, the homeless need a community. A community of people who will be there to help when they are in desperate need. A community who will keep them accountable to limits that make sense to them, but will not shame them if they fail. A community that makes them feel like they belong, really belong. People who will be truly happy to see them.
The homeless need a place to worship. They are a truly spiritual people, and some know God better than those who have attended church all their lives. About one third of the homeless truly seek God and see Jesus as an essential part of their lives. They haven’t gone to church, perhaps, because they were outsiders to the church. So they need a place to worship where they don’t feel inadequate because they wear the "wrong" clothes or speak at the wrong time or use the wrong language or smoke out back. They need a Christian community that accepts them as they are, and still loves them enough to assist them when they see that they need to be more. They need a Christian community who will pray for both their felt needs and their real needs. A people of God who will not shame them for their inadequacies, but praise them for their accomplishments, no matter how small.
This is not a job for one person, or one couple. I know. I have been trying for ten years, with many to help serve, but few to offer the community support that was absolutely necessary. Love like this with a group that is so needy, so desperate, will suck you dry if you are on your own. But if there is a group of people who will love without judgement, then they might succeed in bringing two spiritually crippled groups to run in the grace of God’s light and love—both the homeless and the middle class who serve them.
But such a community could only succeed if it is not a greater-to-lesser relationship. If the homeless are not given input on decisions, then the effort will fail. If any leader establishes a new rule for every problem, the effort will fail. If the leadership loses patience with the needy, throws up their hands and say, "Won’t they every get better?" the effort will fail. If some Christians use their own cultural standards to point at other brothers or sisters and say, "They aren’t a good enough Christian," then the effort will fail. If the community fails to listen to the needs of the least, the weakest, of the community, then the effort will fail. If brothers or sisters who fall into sin, but they turn back and repent each time, aren’t forgiven for simply repenting, then the effort will fail. God must have much mercy on such a community.

What can churches do?
Honestly, I must say that such a community is what I have been attempting to establish for seven years. Anawim Christian Community is still ministering by God’s grace. If I were seeking support for my congregation, I would ask for workers who love and serve and listen—which is what I pray to God for. But such a community is not the only way churches can support the homeless. A coalition of churches can also support the homeless in the following ways:

Provide a network of homeless-friendly congregations
Create a list of churches that have an open-door, no shame policy for the homeless. Perhaps a list of Christian recovery groups could also be made. The churches who would be on this list are not just those that have a "homeless ministry." There are many who do benevolent work for the homeless, but the homeless are not welcome to visit their service. Or if the homeless did visit the service, they would be made immediately uncomfortable by the dress (or the gazes) of the congregation. Rather, a list should be made of churches that specifically welcome the homeless and make allowances for them, such as, in Portland, Liberation Street Church and Peace Mennonite Church (not to mention Anawim Christian Community).

Establish prayer/counseling centers for the lower class
Perhaps a center can be developed downtown, or near downtown that offers prayer and counseling for the needy and poor. Some coffee can be offered, and maybe a pot of soup, but the focus of the ministry would be to welcome and to spiritually serve those on the street. It wouldn’t be a shelter, but a quiet place to focus on God and Jesus in the way the needy one can understand.

Outreach to the homeless that do not have centers near them right now
In the Portland area, there are homeless in Troutdale and in Forest Park that do not have ministries assisting them. Creative thinkers could establish small ministries that might assist these folks.

Encourage ministers to the homeless
Perhaps a multi-church coalition could find ways to support the ministers that already are there, giving their all for the needy. Many believers are already at their limit, giving all they can for the homeless, poor and mentally ill. But they have few to encourage them, to be their in their times of need, to understand their daily concerns, to pray for them at all times, to support them in spiritual warfare. A group that would support the ministers of the homeless would be supporting the homeless in a powerful way.

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