It’s the dingy cardboard sign that reads something like this: “homeless and hungry…anything helps. God bless.” Maybe it’s the scruffy-looking panhandler on the side of the road or on the sidewalk heading to the grocery store. This is the face of homelessness that we think of in America. People at stop signs or on corners asking for money, food, anything helps. But, let me take a moment to paint a different picture for you.
A mom with two young kids faces domestic violence at home. She doesn’t have any family or friends in the area to go to for safety. Where can she go? One woman has struggled with addiction for years. She falls in with bad friends, makes bad habits and lives a desperate cycle to survive. Every penny gets sucked away. How can she get out? Where will she go? An 18-year-old girl is just about to “age-out” of the foster care system. She bounced around to several different temporary homes and won’t finish high school. The future and college seem like a big joke. After couch surfing for 6 months, she has exhausted all her resources and friends. Where will she go? There’s a family who has two full-time jobs and one part-time job, but still, are barely making enough to pay utilities and rent. With a mountain of debt and previous evictions looming over their heads, they finally have to move out and currently live out of two cars. What happens when it gets too cold outside? It’s a middle school trying to help homeless students with solutions like extra backpacks of food on Fridays, laundry facilities in the school, storage closets with extra clothes and shoes. What else would those kids do?
These are just examples of a very real reality just outside our doors and standing behind us in the grocery store. This is the “new” face of homelessness in America. In my job at the City Union Mission Family Center, I get to see and interact with people just like this who cross our threshold every day. The reality and impact of living in a sinful world are very visible. There are a lot of hurts and hard things and unimaginable situations. Women who have lost hope and don’t even know what to think about the future. Many are struggling with debilitating addictions to substances and harmful people. There are those with built-up protective barriers who have never felt safe or loved. Kids who have seen too much of life from a young age. Teens trying to hold and support their parents, but don’t have any capacity to take on such a burden. Where do we even start to help and give hope that is found in a new life in Christ?
As an administrative assistant, I have a lot of opportunities to interact with clients on both a short and long-term basis. Sometimes it’s answering a question about life in the shelter, providing childcare so the parents or mom can attend class or go to a meeting, talking about life over lunch, setting up appointments, or just stopping to chat in the hallway. In all these situations, I have a unique opportunity to help, encourage, and live out the gospel in front of these precious people.
Made in the Image of God
So, what does this look like on a daily basis? There are several things that I keep in mind and pray about in my interactions not only with the Shelter clients but also with my coworkers. The first is that we are all made in the image of God. The beauty of a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic place allows us to see the uniqueness and creativity of God through people. We come in all shapes, sizes, and different shades of brown, yet still we are made in God’s image. As image-bearers, we all have intrinsic worth and value as human beings. Our humanistic culture promotes evolutionary thinking which devalues living beings as mere objects of time and chance. If you don’t believe there is a God who made each of us, then life doesn’t mean anything and I can do whatever I want to my body and to yours. The gospel stands up and speaks the truth: “So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Gen. 1:27). As an image-bearer who knows God, I want to live out what God says about each of us in His word. Our dignity as human beings comes from God. We reaffirm this by showing honor and respect to everyone. And in my work, it’s those who have faced the shame of homelessness, displacement, unsettling circumstances, family violence, or addictions. The way I talk with clients needs to be different to acknowledge the fact that each of these individuals has a story. They have value given to them by God.
Providing Shelter and Protection
At an emergency shelter, it’s obvious that the first thing we provide is shelter and protection. There are rooms for families, single moms with kids, and single women. We serve three meals every day, provide for clothing and hygiene needs, and maintain a secure environment. The Shelter becomes their home. In a very unique way, it’s a community of neighbors contributing to the facility so that it runs well for everyone. This is a partnership between staff and clients. There are expectations for those who stay with us. Not only will it be a safe place for them to stay, but we also provide a structure and support so that each can work through their own individual challenges. Of course, we see both those who want to change and those who are willing to continue the cycle of bad habits. Not everyone values and views the community as their home. Some probably try to take advantage of the situation. Yet our job as staff is not to pass judgment but to patiently and lovely support with the resources available. If those are taken advantage of, then the guidelines and parameters set up help give a standard for when to say no.
Helping to Teach and Train
For true change to take place in the homeless community, our ministry needs to spend significant time and energy teaching and training our clients. This is where recovery and rehabilitation starts. Our goal is to put healthy functional individuals back into their own communities so that they can affect change in their families, schools, and others around them. In the Shelter, we offer classes during the morning that offer training on topics like parenting, communication, quitting smoking, recovery, boundaries, decision making, managing money, and many more. The blessing in our Christian organization is that we can make the goal of each class to provide a gospel-centered Biblical foundation for everyday thinking and doing. This is where true change happens. It’s the gospel that will give new motivation for someone to provide for their own family or stop living under harmful addictions. Only in the gospel is there any real power for change. All our teaching and training needs to start there.
What can the Church do?
As I’ve entered this new realm of ministry to the displaced and homeless, the question of what the Church can do to help has been on my mind. One of the initial challenges is the change in the face of homelessness because truly desperate people probably aren’t as visible as we would think. How do we reach out to those when we don’t know who or where they are? This question is a partial answer as well. First of all, we need to realize the growing issue facing society. The decline, and in some places, the disappearance of the “middle class” has led to a larger number of people in financial struggles as it comes to housing and basic needs. Once we recognize the problem, we will be more likely to have eyes open to see the different needs of people around us. Obviously, there are also ministries, like my work, that certainly need the help and support of local churches in order to keep our doors open. We need partners in prayer, financial support, and volunteers to provide and shelter our clients. We need more full-time and part-time staff for 24/7 care.
Yet, in all this, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and with the next like it, to love your neighbor as yourself. Not only are our neighbors living in the structures next to us, but perhaps, they live in the car down the street or on a friend’s couch or in a tent in the park. Let us have eyes to see how God might use us to reach the “least of these”, not only in physical ways but more so to shine the light of the gospel of Christ and give the only hope in a hard and dying world.