An Alternative To Homelessness

Every moderately large city has them. They stare at you when you pause at the stoplight. They accost you for money when you walk through a downtown area. A teenager in my neighborhood recently joined their ranks after running away from home. And when we give them our attention, if you’re like me, you feel guilty.

Homeless people comprise the lowest caste in western society. (A caste is a social division of people—often genetically linked—who share common privileges and limitations.) In India, the Dalits comprise their society’s lowest caste. Often called “the untouchables,” their name means “ground”, “suppressed”, “crushed”, or “broken to pieces.”

Undoubtedly, the homeless play a similar role in western society. To be honest, I often find myself avoiding eye contact with them out of concern that they might ask me for money, or gasp, touch me. It’s also a way to circumvent the inevitable guilt if I really see them.

Solutions to homelessness are legion. A few years ago, the mayor of Denver promised to eliminate homelessness in our city, not by shipping all of them out of town, but by providing a program to help get them on their feet. Although his measures made a dent in their presence, he fell far short of the mark when he left office.

But what is our personal responsibility when it comes to homelessness? When someone asks us for money, what do we do? Organizations that serve their particular population tell us that giving them money only reinforces the problem. Instead, we’re advised to give to one of their organizations where it will go into drug and alcohol rehab, and job counseling and training, as well as food and clothes.

John Fischer is a friend of mine. Forty-two years ago he released the first Christian “rock” album—just a few months before the more famous Larry Norman. He wrote a song every youth group in America sang in the 70s—the “All Day Song” better known as “Love Him In The Morning.” And although he’s a great musician, he’s an even better writer and thinker. My two favorite books penned by Fischer are Real Christians Don’t Dance and 12 Steps For The Recovering Pharisee (Like Me).

A few years ago, John launched a blog entitled “The Catch Of The Day”, which I subscribe to. In his June 14 post, he wrote about a recent encounter with homelessness. John and his wife Marti volunteer at a homeless shelter for women.

Recently, after enjoying breakfast with a friend, he walked past a homeless women on the street and realized that he knew her. Wanting to help her, he returned to his breakfast spot and bought a cookie to make change for the $20 bill in his wallet. Then he gave her some change.

Guilt alleviated? Nope!

As he drove away, he confesses, “I thought, ‘Hey, dumb dumb, why not give her the cookie too? Because the cookie was for me.’”

Please read closely what he says next:

Had she been one of the women from Isaiah House would I have done anything differently? Well, yes. First off, I would have sat myself down next to her and talked with her for a while. I would have gotten her name, found out how she was doing, and attempted to see if there was something I could do for her.

And I would have given her the cookie, or better yet, shared it with her. Sharing it would have put us more on an equal level. And if I gave her any money, I would have done it discreetly, instead of just handing it to her and walking away. And heck, I might as well have just given her the rest of the twenty.

It’s amazing how things change once you get to know someone.

Sharing a cookie. A simple action that won’t solve homelessness in itself, but so much better than throwing money at a “problem” and walking away. By giving and then getting on the person’s level, it brings dignity to our society’s untouchables.

Sounds a lot like Jesus.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death— even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:5-8

Michael serves as co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church in Littleton, Colorado.

15 Comments

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15 responses to “An Alternative To Homelessness

  1. elna

    I once listened to a man asking for donations on the radio. This young lady found homeless kids and invited them into her house and fed them. After a while the kids starting staying over and the local people heard about this and started helping her financially. This man said: “she is so inspiring that we want to built her a big building, where she can take care of more of these kids.” I thought to myself: real inspiration would have been if you opened your own home to these kids instead of building a bigger house for someone else. …But that idea was too radical for him…and for me 😉

    • Radical for me, too, Elna. You might have heard of DL Moody. He was a great evangelist in America 100 years ago. His mentor once told him “The world has yet to see what God can do through a man fully consecrated to him.” Moody replied, “With God’s help, I aim to be that man.”

      If we were fully consecrated, set apart, wholly dedicated to God, it would rock this world.

      Just this morning, I ran across the story in Mark 10 about the young man who wanted to follow Jesus. When Jesus asked him to give everything to the poor, the man walked away very sad. Far too often, I’m that man. I don’t want to get dirty. I don’t want to share my relative wealth. I don’t want to share myself.

  2. Georgie-ann

    wow,…big topic,…

    The extent of the problem socially makes it one that as an individual (older female) facing it, I already feel very small and helpless personally. Also vulnerable. Too many “unknowns” about the “unknown” people, their inclinations, problems, possible dangers and/or addictions, needs,…

    Our rather small town has homeless shelters, emergency housing facilities, at least one very prominent church-run soup kitchen, and special winter overnight facilities. Many churches also collect food for food pantries. Unless otherwise “led,” I’m most comfortable interfacing with the “homeless” via the protective setting of our church, or another social organization.

    In several intentional ways over the last 20 years or so, on and off, I made myself available to interface personally with so-called “down and outers,” as a “friendly person” to some that I would meet. I wasn’t really able to be or do much more than that anyway. Many are disabled or limited in some difficult way.

    With a friend, we’ve taken personally a few — (who demonstrated a level of trustworthiness) — “under our wing” as “buddies.” It’s kind of fun/bittersweet/and sad all at the same time, now, to see them passing by when stopped at a red light. We wave and smile — happy recognition! — although navigating in different ways and in different zones.

    Truly, sometimes it seems that not all that much separates us, heart-wise, although I think the demands of Responsibility, that we DO take seriously, will always make a very significant difference between “our worlds.” We really do have plans to follow through on, schedules to keep, etc. The “homeless”/down-and-outers that I’ve met could waste your whole day on incredible inessentials, emotional magnifications of “issues” that apparently serve to “keep their minds rolling,” but while basically spinning wheels and staying in the same place.

    For “us,” the clock ticks,…for “them,” time doesn’t matter in the same way. We “save” time and “spend” time, but they are trying to fill time — time that lies open before them with little sense of destiny calling. Often these modes are best simply intersecting at the random opportune moments, as it is very difficult to mesh the gears for prolonged periods.

    I pray for them, often seeing them affectionately somewhat as “God’s little sparrows,” simple hearts, and pray that they will find meaning and provision and consolation in the things offered to them and in each other.

    A much more difficult facet of this problem involves the addicted and criminal element. I am not equipped or led to feel safe with such a ministry and pray that God has His people that are equipped and able to handle such problems that are way out of my simple league.

  3. Georgie-ann

    I also pretty much subscribe to the wisdom of meeting needs with actual food, clothing, etc.,…maybe a little money here and there,…but it’s such an unknown how it will be used usually,…simple friendliness for some was very appreciated and even reciprocated,…

  4. Georgie-ann, I think your comments about homelessness and time are very insightful. We save and spend our time–they’re trying to fill it.

    One other element I’ve seen about the homeless: many of them are mentally ill. When I was a kid, we didn’t give them much compassion because I was taught that they were lazy or drunk. While assuredly this is true among some, perhaps many, the problem of homelessness is quite complex. Nevertheless, God loves them as much as us. Jesus died for them in the same way he died for us. And in their eyes, we can see Christ.

    • Georgie-ann

      Our town was home to a large Psychiatric Hospital for over 100 years. Recently, funding for this facility was cut off, and many souls have been “released,” but now have a stronger relationship with the street. There are agencies and nice enough people employed to help and house as many as possible, but some are unable to be organized and co-operative enough and “regular” enough to keep up their necessary end of the requisite bargain for orderly existence.

      I guess I am thankful to know that there are general avenues of help and sustenance made available for many of them. It’s a pretty big job (and need) in our area.

  5. Georgie-ann

    Michael,…you said: “And in their eyes, we can see Christ.”

    Maybe the flip-side of that is also our question: “Can they see Christ — (i.e., “love”) — in our eyes, looking at them?”

  6. True. Personally, I think I act more like Christ when I think I’m serving him.

  7. Georgie-ann

    We’re all different! I worry more about “looking down my nose” and being unaccepting of people, simply as they are,…

  8. elna

    Can we ..must we …really worry about what people do with our gifts…If we give something it is not ours anymore! With the gift we also let go off our control over the gift.
    It’s not ours anymore!!

    • Georgie-ann

      I’m not sure if you’re concerned with my comment about giving food preferentially vs. giving money. Believe me, we know anything we give is as “bread cast upon the water” on a sea of endless needs. Once given, it is indeed given. And God should lead vs. any kind of enforced “idealism,” but practical wisdom in an ongoing relationship to endless needs is also advisable. We actually got a lot of street-wise tips from Guardian Angels who came to help us for awhile.

      I’ve seen drug trafficking definitely encouraged when money has been made available, and quite honestly that is a scourge to the community and neighborhoods. People have been beaten and left for dead, when someone else resents what little they have more than someone else (or whatever issue). This day to day “survival”/existence world is not a rational world, or a fair world in many cases.

      If the “kind” of gift one wishes to give has a significance and meaning that is also important in some way to the giver (as the cookie sharing was mentioned, and could be very symbolic), then anything could be an appropriate vessel to communicate significance.

      “Significance” is one of the important things to communicate. “You ARE somebody.” “I recognize you.” “I see you, and I care for you.” “Hi, Michael. I KNOW you!” These are things I hope they can read in my eyes, even if I don’t have much else to offer. A friend.

      One of our “pals” chatted me up while I was in a police station inquiring about an accident report situation. Suddenly I noticed some officers “rising to attention,” checking us out. I gave them a subtle “It’s OK” look, and we talked on. Michael wanted to know if I had any stuffed animals. He really wanted a stuffed animal. I do have one in my car, but it’s my “driving mascot,” I explained. But, I also happened to have a bag of women’s hand-me-down clothes from someone, to pass along to someone, and he was delighted to receive those, so he could share them with his friends. And that was “cool” too. Something nice to do for others. I’m sure the possibilities are endless.

      And tomorrow will be another day, with more endless possibilities.

  9. John Moyer

    I “work” for Save Our Youth, mentoring at risk kids, now on #2 in the past 10 years.
    I take my mentee to Denver Rescue Mission on a quarterly basis, do kitchen prep, eat with staff, and serve the outside guests. He loves the experience, sees the homeless lifestyle, and leaves wondering “why” anyone would elect this pathway. Exposing my mentee to this is invaluable as he is nearly 13 and forming impressions of life, choices, behaviors. John Moyer MD

    • We’ve done a little of that with our kids, too, John. Exposing young people to homelessness through ways other than TV helps them see homeless people with compassion. By the way, our church is a Save Our Youth partner.

      • John Moyer

        Knew about that from Luis Villereal and my mentor there at SOY.
        Great organization, terrific outreach. My present mentee is latino, and it’s caused me to begin Spanish language study, now year #3, a real challenge, but it’s working. His parents, monolingual in their native language, seem to “trust” me a bit more when I converse with them in Sp[anish, who knows?I have introduced the mentee to Wildlyfe, he loves it. John Moyer

      • Georgie-ann

        Dr. John,…I have devoted over 10 years to “doing music” with the Spanish part of our Catholic Church parish. They love music (and God!) so much! We have great instrumentalists and singers in the choir, and I try to teach the fundamentals of keyboard and instrumental music to their youth as a “freebie.” I struggle to learn Spanish as well — it’s good for me as well as them — and I’m sure it makes them more comfortable to see that we have to make a language struggle with theirs, just as much as they have to struggle with ours. I bet they appreciate absolutely everything you try to do for them!

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