Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Biblical Response to the Homeless

The homeless are both the bane and pity of our society.  They stand out as the lowest, the outcast, those who perpetually don’t fit in.  In 2005 there were 744,000 homeless people in the United States, yet not all of these people are homeless today.

Not all of these homeless are the same.  Some will only be on the streets for a night or a week or a month.  These have lost jobs and fallen on hard times.  For others, they have a network of supporters sufficient enough to give them a place to crash for a period of time.  But for many, the hard times perpetuate over years, sometimes even decades. These are the chronic homeless and they stand out as the most obvious failure of our society.

James was living on the streets of Gresham.  He was an alcoholic, a violent man and a thief.  But one day, in jail, he had a vision of Jesus, praying for him, calling to him.  He knew he had to change, to live differently, but he didn’t know how.  He approached the pastor who ran a meal and a worship service he attended once a week, and the pastor prayed for him and gave him counsel.  He cut back on his drinking and stopped stealing, but he still had difficulty making the rest of the changes he needed to make.  And no one would hire him because he looked like a bum. 

How are we supposed to react to the homeless?
Many of us look at the homeless in disgust, knowing that if they would just shake their addiction and apply themselves they could get a job and get back on their feet.  Others of us look at the homeless and feel sorrow and sympathy wanting to help, but only able to throw a dollar their way. 

But as believers in Jesus Christ, how are we supposed to react?  Many believers think that if the homeless would just commit themselves to Jesus, then their lives would get straightened out and they could be normal participants in society.  What many Christians don’t know is that at least a third of those who live on the street already have committed themselves to Jesus and are doing their best to live a Christian life.  Yes, some are addicts, but not all.  Many are mentally ill, but we cannot blame homelessness exclusively on mental illness, either. 

How does Scripture tell us to react to these poor and outcast of society? 
  • We are to show respect to the poor.  James 2
  • We are to respond in love and compassion to everyone in need.  Luke 10
  • We are to offer help, especially to believers.  Galatians 6:10
  • We are to offer hospitality, clothing, shelter and food.  Matthew 25:31-46
  • We are to offer fellowship and peace. Romans 12
Most of all, according to Scripture, we are to love.  This doesn’t always mean giving money or food, although we shouldn’t be closed to that.   But it does always mean being patient, being kind, not putting ourselves over the other person, but bearing other’s burdens and enduring with them.  I Corinthians 13

Bill lived in Vancouver, but worked in Gresham.  He had often seen a homeless man walking by his office as he worked on his computer.  He recalled that his church in Vancouver wanted to begin a ministry to the homeless, but didn’t know where to begin.  Bill decided that he would begin on his own.  The next time he saw the man walking down the street, he approached him and engaged him in conversation.  James was friendly and though he was different, he was pleasant to talk to.  Bill took him out to lunch and began to hear about James’ life and issues.

A New Paradigm
As the people of Jesus who reached out to the outcast, we are not to stand at a distance from the homeless.  We must not separate ourselves from the lowest in society—whoever they are.  Can we continue our practice of throwing evangelistic messages and food out our door to the cold and grief-stricken, while we stay warm, comforted and well-fed in our buildings?  Some of these outcast we need to embrace as brothers and sisters, and others we need to embrace as the poor who need our help.  As the people of the Book which teaches compassion, we must stand with those on the street.
            But how are we to do this?  Thousands of homeless are just too much for any church to bear, let alone the small percentage of the church that are stirred by the Spirit to assist the homeless.  But the Lord has not called us to help the massive crowd, only those we know.  To assist the homeless is not a matter of a huge ministry with hundreds of thousands of dollars.  Rather it is a one-on-one ministry.

James took Bill to his street church and Bill’s eyes were opened.  There were maybe a hundred homeless in Gresham, and many of them were believers who worshipped the Lord in their own worship service.  Bill then made a decision—James was a fellow believer and needed his help.  He offered James some landscaping work, which James readily accepted.  When the freezing winds kicked up one night, Bill drove over to pick up James and a couple of his friends for the night.  Bill became James’ good friend.  James learned from Bill and from his pastor ways other than violence to deal with his problems.  James ended up living with another member of the church, John, and doing labor for Bill, John and the church.  He would obtain his room and board from John, and gain a little bit of money on the side from Bill and the church.

A Personal Welcome From the Church
This story should be replicated in every church.  If every church in our urban areas had perhaps two people among their congregations who would be a friend and support for a single homeless person, then our whole society would change.  The homeless would no longer be outcast, nor strangers in our midst.  They would be members of our churches, participants in our society and our friends. 
            Very few churches have the resources to have a shelter.  And it is not necessary for every church to have a food ministry.  But there is one need of the homeless that every urban church can help—their isolation.  The strength of the church is not our money, nor our political power.  Rather, the strength of Christians has always been their love, their sacrifice and their welcome.  If we take these strengths and focus them on the homeless, then the American urban landscape will change.  The church will have a new people.  And Christ will be glorified.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

How Your Church Can Help the Homeless: A Practical Summary

So you are thinking about helping the homeless?  It is an undertaking, and must be done with prayer and wisdom.  Here's some tips to get you started and to keep you going for a while.

   1. Find out: What other organizations are already helping the homeless?  Look for them and find out what is already taking place in the area.  Meet with them and ask them what needs to be done.  If you can visit their program, talk with the homeless, and find out what they need in their area. 

2.      Determine what is the desire and resources of your congregation.  Perhaps your congregation wants to partner with a group that is already working with the homeless.  Perhaps they’d like to meet a need that isn’t already met.  Pray about what the Spirit is leading your congregation to do.

3.     Determine a balanced initial ministry.  Homeless ministry must be balanced between efficiently meeting a need of the community and relating in love to those coming for services.  Some good ministries a single congregations can do might be:

a.       Serving a meal once a month or once a week
b.      Opening up the church building to those in need of day shelter for five or six hours once a week
c.       c. Providing sack lunches, socks, hygiene items, hand warmers, blankets, tarps or sleeping bags to organizations that serve the homeless, or taking such items out to the homeless.
d.      d. Open up the church facility in the winter as an overnight shelter, especially on the worst nights

4.   4.   Educate your congregation about the homeless.  Ask a minister to the homeless to give a "Homeless 101" about homeless culture and ministry. 

       At some point you will have to address the issue of liability and church conflict.  Some people in the church will be nervous about having the homeless around the facility, and some might be vocally unhappy about having the homeless around at all.  Have a person who has been doing homeless ministry come in and give a “Homeless 101” about the culture and needs of the homeless.  Make some fair boundaries (and make sure that everyone sticks to them) for the ministry, such as it occurs during certain times  and no camping on church property (unless that’s one of the needs you are meeting).  At the same time, we need to remember that all real ministry involves risk.  The congregation will have to determine together what the balance of risk and boundaries they will take.

5.      Once you have had some regular contact with the homeless, ask them what their needs are, no matter how small, no matter how big.  It is important that our ministry to the homeless actually meet the needs of the homeless and not what we assume their needs are.  As much as you are able, have the homeless participate in the ministry you are providing them.  Give them volunteer opportunities, ask their opinion and give some leadership (but pick your leaders carefully). 

6.     Listen to the homeless who come to your church, and pray for their needs, both with them and away from them.  For many of these folks you may be the only one praying for them, and God will act if we pray.

7.     To meet the larger needs of the homeless, try to network with other churches in your community.  Many churches are looking for an opportunity to help the homeless, and would love to participate with others.  Come up with a plan and invite as many churches as possible to participate with you.  Some successful ministries that local churches have networked together to do are:

a.       A warehouse of food, sleeping gear, hygiene items and other items.
b.      A day shelter every day of the week in different churches.
c.       A winter overnight shelter, held in different churches, or in one location but the volunteers come from different churches.
d.      A meal for every day of the week.
     e.      A shelter specifically for women or families, providing opportunities for job searching.

8.    8.   Finally, we need to remember that all ministry is about love.  We can serve and give and even sacrifice, but if we do not actually love those we are serving, then we have done nothing.  Sacrifice your heart, as well as your time and finances and space. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

A Hint of Relief: Homeless and Chronic Stress Pt. 3

Before the homeless can help themselves, they must get out of this cycle of stress. And this is where we, as representatives of Christ, can help. Probably the best way we can describe a beneficial ministry to the homeless is one in which their stress is reduced, so they can have the mental stamina necessary to use what resources are available to help themselves to get off the street.  Any ministry that helps people get housing is a miracle of God in and of itself.  Any ministry that keeps the homeless alive by providing shelter is wonderful.  But a local church can provide just as important of a ministry by providing a place where the homeless can relax, be at peace and store up rest so they can face the hard work of survival.

How can we reduce the stress of the homeless?
  • Provide a place for the homeless to relax during the day, if only for a couple hours without people rushing them or telling them to “move on”
  • Relate to the homeless in a peaceable way
  • Assist the homeless in dealing with conflict by counseling them how to deal with conflict in their lives
  • Know the local services that help the homeless and provide knowledge to those in need
  • In our ministries, have a simple, short list of rules that make sense to those coming in
  • Listen to the stories and issues of the homeless, if only to be a listening ear
  • Provide opportunities to work whether paid or voluntary so they can feel they are participating in the community, and earning their own keep
  • Provide movies to watch so they can take their minds off of their stresses, if only for a couple hours
  • Be a faithful, helpful friend who won’t break promises or run out on them  (See the next chapter for help in that)
  • Remaining calm and peaceful despite the stress that others bring.
  • Giving the homeless help for their animals, which provide stability, unconditional friendship and stress relief

Diagnosed: Chronic Stress and the Homeless Pt. 2

The homeless person should be the poster child for a diagnosis of chronic stress.  A person with the official diagnosis of chronic stress endures stressful events over a long period of time over which they have no control. Which is almost the definition of homelessness.

All of our bodies are made to deal with stress.  Chronic stress becomes a problem because our bodies are not made to deal with continual stress over a long period of time.  Rather, they are made to deal with a certain amount of stress and then to have periods of rest in which the body can recuperate.  If one’s body isn’t allowed a period of rest from stress, then it creates abnormal ways of dealing with that unending stress.

The symptoms of chronic stress can include:
Inability to concentrate
Intense mood swings
Depression, including fits of anger, lack of energy and suicidal thoughts
High blood pressure

For this reason, many of the homeless have difficulty filling out forms or getting to meetings on time because of their inability to concentrate.  Many of the homeless will irrationally strike out against others, even those who have helped them, because of the inability to deal with stress.  For this reason, many of them have persistent hopelessness, because of their depression.  Many of the homeless also are so anxious that they are unable to sleep, which causes other mental disorders.  Some have undiagnosable pains in their back, stomach or skin.  All of this makes it difficult, if not for some impossible, to get a job, to restore broken relationships or even to apply for disability.  

Life In Hell: Chronic Stress and Homelessness Pt.1

It is said that the homeless are just like “us”, by which is meant “normal, middle class people”.  That is only partly true.  The homeless start out just like us, but they are re-trained to live lives of perpetual chronic stress.  While the stress level of the homeless should be obvious to everyone, it isn’t necessarily seriously considered.

A person finds themselves homeless, a place they never thought they would be in.  Perhaps, up to this point, they have even looked down on homeless people, seeing them as those who failed.  Now they are there themselves, and they do not need anyone to tell them that they need to immediately get off the streets.  So they call their family, call their friends, they contact the government, they go to shelters—and they find that there isn’t any help for them.   Now they are the ones who have failed, they are failures in the society they grew up in.  For some, this feeling of social inadequacy is overcome, but for many it continues for the rest of the time they are on the street.

Sleep is almost impossible, especially at first.  Sleeping outside is strange, even if it is warm, but often it is not warm.  The wind on one’s face, the stirring of anything—person, animal, branch blown by the wind—keeps you awake, or wakes you many times in the night.  Later on, sleep is also difficult, perhaps because one’s camp isn’t adequate for the rain, or because of fear of the many other people you share a single room with in the shelter.

Once a person is homeless for a while, they realize just how vulnerable they are.  They hear stories about people who are attacked in the middle of the night, or about police disturbing you or telling you to move early in the morning, often with their dogs and Taser guns.   The fact that you can be stopped and often are by the police just for “looking” homeless, or ticketed if you are found in a camp is enough to make you nervous.   The strange looks people give you, the complaints of shoppers if you stop in front of a store to rest, managers or church workers who yell at you for just trying to survive.

And the walking!  Some cities have all the services in one location, which means you have to deal with all the crazy people in one place.  But in most cities, many churches or agencies offer different services in different places.  This means miles of walking just to get from one meal to another.  Clothes are in one place, food in another, shelter in another. 

After a person has been homeless for a while, the amount of alcohol they drink increases.  It helps reduce the stress temporarily, and a lot of alcohol means that the stress just disappears after a while, leaving one in a blissful state.  Of course, in the end it doesn’t reduce stress.  First of all, alcohol is a depressant, so after the bliss is over, it leaves one morose, or perhaps irrationally angry.  This not only causes stress for the individual, but for all those around them.  But being without the alcohol doesn’t help either, because withdrawals makes one irritable and if one has had a lot of alcohol over a long period of time, withdrawals can even kill you.

The other homeless can also be a source of stress.  They are just as stressed, just as desperate as you are yourself.  But you can’t leave them, because you all use the same services, the same resources.  The homeless are stuck with each other.  But they can’t trust each other, not really.  There may be individuals who can be trusted, but as a group they must be seen as potential thieves, potential violent criminals.  Few of them actually are—fewer than in the housed population—but because you are so vulnerable, and the few items you carry with you are all necessary, you have to ward against them all.

Some of the homeless tell themselves that all the homeless aren’t to be trusted as a group.  But since the one speaking is part of that group, that increases one’s anxiety about oneself.  If I am a part of an untrustworthy group, what does that make me?

Think about this lifestyle, think about this mindset.  How long could you stand it?  Certainly you would try to get out, but what if you can’t?  How long could you endure before you started cracking?  A month?  Six?  What about people who have had to endure this living for years?  Some aspects of their lives they would have gotten used to.  But the stress is always there.   Always.  No matter what you do to try to deal with it, it is always an issue.