Friday, November 09, 2007

Welcoming the Homeless Into Your Home

Good Morning Steve,
My name is Devan and I met you at the Mennonite Church USA conference this past July; I attended your lecture on gods and theology in the ancient world, and I sat with you at Willard Swartley's lecture on peace and justice. I had a chance to talk with you a little bit about your ministry and church for those experiencing homelessness. I was very intrigued and wanted to hear more but, alas, I was only in San Jose for 2 days.

I have, for a few months, been considering doing a similar ministry. Generally, my neighborhood doesn't have many chronically homelessness folks residing in or around it given that it is far from most of the human service agencies. Nonetheless, my neighborhood is known for gang violence, is one of the poorest in the city of Buffalo (with a 30% poverty rate, most of which is concentrated in blocks surrounding my home), and has a lot of youth who are steps away from serious incarceration or death. Many of them are in and out of homelessnesses from month to month. A ministry down the street from me (it's a thrift store) offers job training and steady pay to teenagers in the neighborhood - even if they leave for two weeks and come back needing more money - and some of the folks who work there have increasingly been asking me to get involved by mentoring those youth. I know that, eventually, this will mean making my home a place for them to come and feel welcome and get some food and have a chance to have someone listen.

I thought perhaps you would have some insight about how to safely open my home in that way. How did you do it? What are the anticipated challenges? Even if folks are coming into your home like that, there are still boundaries set I assume? What are they and how did you communicate to the folks you were welcoming how to respect those boundaries? Has anyone stolen things from you? How have you responded to this? I know this is a lot to ask, I appreciate any insight you are willing to give.
Shalom, Devan

That's great that you're thinking about such a needy and challenging ministry. I am actually sitting here thinking, "How WOULD you start a ministry like that?" The way we started was so "easy" and God-driven, it just started itself. But if you are really open and friendly to the kids, then you should go far.

And, yep, we've had stuff stolen from our place. One time we had a checkbook stolen, and we ended up losing a thousand dollars-- which, as you know, we couldn't afford. The lesson we learned from that is: Don't tempt people by having stuff out that is easy to steal. But we never pressed charges against anyone. Heck, we didn't know who stole the checkbook, anyway, and we wouldn't want to even file a police report because we don't want to be the cause of someone being sent to a place where they could learn worse things than on the street.

There was another guy who stole from us. He was a kleptomaniac, actually-- actually diagnosed. As soon as he stole something, he felt guilty and then would give it away. I just asked him to apologize to whomever he stole from and then he was welcomed back. He did. Another who stole from a church that we were meeting at didn't and I haven't seen him since. It's hard to draw that line, but there is a basic rule of the street-- you don't shit in your garden. Meaning, you don't do something bad to someone who is helping you. So, when the street ethic is the same as the biblical ethic, I try to support that.

Keep your eyes open and listen carefully. Thats the main thing. Assume that you don't know anything about anybody when you meet them and you will learn something surprizing and new. For most folks on the street-- unless they are deeply involved in a gang-- they are isolated and feel out on a limb. So be open about yourself. Most folks on the street can read somone who is being falsely sincere. And other folks will think that a person is being insincere when they aren't. Just be yourself as much as you can, share your opinions if you think they agree with them.

Try to build trust. Trust is earned, not given. And you are asking folks to come into your place, which is a foreign world to them. Welcome them, but don't overwhelm them. Treat them as you would an immigrant from another country. Be careful about their concerns and try to ask them about what their needs might be. They probably won't ask you for anything, so be generous.

Give whatever things of substance you can, but try to avoid giving money. If folks have addiction issues, then even if they have the best intentions and are sincere, they will use the money on their addiction. If you give clothes or blankets or anything, make sure the tags are off and there's no reciept, so they can't just return them and use the money for something that won't help them.

Now, do you have kids? I do, and that offers another level of challenges, but I won't get into it unless you have some. Actually, is there anyone living with you at all?

Ummm. I'm sure there's pleanty more I could say. But perhaps you were thinking of stuff that was more pratical. Have you got any questions? If I know, I'd be glad to answer, or at least give a thoughtul opinion about that of which I am clueless.

May God grant you peace and fullness in this ministry.

Steve K

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