In honor of Father’s Day, I’m devoting my next two posts to a topic near and dear to my husband’s heart: serving the homeless. Bryan leads a ministry that serves hot meals weekly to the homeless here in Southern California. Before he got involved with this, neither of us really knew anything about the needs of the homeless. Over the last two years, however, Bryan has gotten to know many of the homeless people in the area personally through the opportunity to serve them meals and pray with them each week. In this post, I hope to shed light on who the homeless are (based on Bryan’s experiences); in the next post I’ll provide specific ways that you can serve the homeless in your own area with your family.
To many, the homeless are a faceless crowd of untouchables. Particularly if you are looking for opportunities to serve others with your children, the homeless can be intimidating.
There is fear . . . are they violent? On drugs? Mentally unstable?
There is self-consciousness . . . What would I say to people I don’t know in the homeless situation they’re in? What if they react negatively? What if they don’t react at all?
There is helplessness . . . What do I have to offer? Where would I even start to help someone?
And if we’re honest, there is often judgment . . . Aren’t they just on drugs anyway? Won’t they use money for drugs/alcohol? If I give them something, doesn’t that just encourage them to depend on others and not get off the street? Would they even be grateful?
In this post, I hope to begin breaking down some of the initial barriers most of us have to serving the homeless by giving a more personal face to their circumstances and needs.
That said, the answer to the question, “Why are the homeless homeless?” should not be a factor in deciding to serve. Jesus never questioned whether someone deserved to be helped. Nor did he tell us to. But there is perhaps no group of people more scrutinized from this perspective than the homeless. A greater understanding of why the homeless are homeless should help us better identify needs, not serve as a reference point for judgment.
Timothy Keller addresses this beautifully in his amazing book, Generous Justice (you have to read this book if you haven’t already):
“We all want to help kind-hearted, upright people, whose poverty came upon them through no foolishness or contribution of their own, and who will respond to our aid with gratitude and joy. However, almost no one like that exists.”
Keller completely reoriented my view of the world with his point that people rarely take into consideration the fact that good judgment in life is a gift in and of itself. In the following excerpt, he quotes Jonathan Edwards (early American preacher) on the topic:
“When answering the objection that the poor have often contributed to their condition, Edwards is remarkably balanced yet insistently generous. He points out that it is possible some people simply do not have “a natural faculty to manage affairs to advantage.” In other words, some people persistently make sincere but very bad decisions about money and possessions. Edwards says we should consider the lack of this faculty to be almost like being born with impaired eyesight: Such a faculty is a gift that God bestows on some, and not on others. And it is not owing to themselves. . .This is as reasonable as that he to whom Providence has imparted sight should be willing to help him to whom sight is denied, and that he should have the benefit of the sight of others, who has none of his own.”
With these things in mind, here is an overview of some major factors of homelessness, based on Bryan’s experience in our local area.
Please note that there are, of course, many other possible factors and that their prevalence varies by geography. The personal stories are real, with names changed for anonymity.
The Temporarily Homeless
The temporarily homeless are people who have not been homeless before and do not plan to live on the streets indefinitely. Bryan estimates that in this area, this group accounts for roughly 10% of the people he serves, and that they are usually on the streets for 1 to 6 months.
Generally speaking, the immediate cause of homelessness for these people is one of the three things:
1. They recently were in prison. If someone goes to prison and doesn’t have a support network of family or friends, they are quite literally on the streets when they get out. They have no money and no place to go. There is actually a local ministry that waits to greet people as they are set free in the middle of the night in order to pray with them and give them bus tickets. Those who have no destination, however, land on the streets until they can get back on their feet.
2. They lost their job. Even in a bad economy, when most people lose their jobs, they are able to fall back onto savings or, if not, they are able to move in with family. But there are many people who have low-wage jobs with no financial safety net and have no family to turn to. It’s relatively unusual for Bryan to see younger people move to the streets due to job loss because younger people typically have parents who are still involved in their lives, or they have closer ties with friends than older people. For that reason, this group is usually made up of people 40+.
3. They are recently emancipated foster children. There are many kids who grow up in the foster system who go directly to the streets after they cut legal ties with governmental oversight at 18. While there are various programs that offer support to emancipated teens, these kids are often so jaded by many years of the system “controlling them” (from their perspective) that they would rather do just about anything than remain tied to a program once they are adults.
Mark was in the foster system for many years and then was placed with a foster family. The foster dad severely abused him, leaving him with emotional and physical scars and much anger. He got kicked out of school several times before graduating. At 18, he was an angry young man with no family or guidance. He went to live on the streets and soon turned to drugs and petty crimes. He landed in jail within 6 months.
The Periodically Homeless
The periodically homeless are people who regularly rotate between living on the streets or hotels and living in an apartment or renting a room in a house. Bryan estimates that in this area, this group accounts for about 30% of the people he sees.
Most commonly, there are two immediate causes that lead to homelessness for this group:
1. Substance abuse issues. Serious alcohol or drug problems often lead people to the streets because they are unable to function in a job and their families have cut ties. Unfortunately, this leads to perpetual homelessness for most people struggling in this way. But women with substance abuse issues are more likely to periodically find a place to stay because they tend to be less willing to stay on the streets indefinitely given safety considerations. Many of the women Bryan sees in this position are on the street until they meet a man who takes them in. When the relationship is over, they return to the street.
Kathy is a meth addict. She was abused as a child and later abused her own children. Her children were placed in the foster system. She lives on the street but disappears for months at a time after finding a boyfriend. When the relationship ends, she returns to the street. After her daughter was emancipated from the foster system, they lived homeless together until her daughter got pregnant and moved in with her boyfriend’s family. Kathy continues to live on and off of the streets.
2. Seasonal employment. Single, older men without the job skills to find consistent employment sometimes rely on seasonal employment in certain industries (e.g., carnivals or construction). While earning a paycheck, they live in hotels or other accommodations, and then return to the streets when the money runs out.
John is an occupationally low-skilled man in his 60’s who has seasonal employment as part of the grounds crew at a professional sports stadium. The job is near and dear to his heart; he loves knowing the players personally and finds great emotional satisfaction from being part of the game in this way. He would rather live homelessly in the off season than give up this job to find year-round employment.
The Perpetually Homeless
The perpetually homeless are people who plan to live on the streets indefinitely; it is their way of life. Bryan estimates that in this area, this group accounts for about 60% of the people he sees.
The two most common causes lead to perpetual homelessness are:
1. Substance abuse issues. Unlike women with substance abuse issues who tend to be periodically homeless for the reasons previously described, older single men with serious alcohol or drug addictions are often on the streets for many years. They don’t take advantage of transitional housing opportunities or homeless shelters because these facilities almost always require a person to be sober first. With severe long-term addiction, most of these people have lost the hope of sobriety and, therefore, of getting off the streets.
2. Mental illness of an aggressive/defiant nature. Mentally ill people who end up on the streets and are amenable to help are almost always eventually taken in by government organizations. If a mentally ill person is defiant or aggressive (by nature or due to the illness), however, they are often left on the streets indefinitely.
William is a very large man who intimidates many of those around him with his size and aggressive language. He grew up as the son of a Baptist preacher and was voted “Most Handsome” in his high school, but now believes he is a messenger of God. He is not open to help and remains on the streets with unpredictable behavior and intimidating verbal outbursts.
I leave you with this question: What do all of these people have in common?
They need the love and the hope of Jesus.
Bryan and his fellow volunteers serve meals each week to aid physical needs, as Jesus commands, but they serve the homeless in much greater ways by tending to their spiritual needs through prayer and fellowship. There are many ways you can as well. In my next post, I will highlight ways for you and your family to do so.
If this post has given you more understanding of the homeless, please share with your friends.