Three Things Our Friends Experiencing Homelessness Need from You
I spend my days working at one of Atlanta’s busiest homeless service agencies. I also get the pleasure of working with many missions teams, alternative spring breaks, and corporate service groups. I love my job, and I love building relationships with my friends experiencing homelessness.
I have recently been asked by a lot of friends about what it is that our friends experiencing homelessness really need.
So here are three things:
1) Support. Supporting existing ministries, nonprofits, and organizations: Many of us can only serve once a year. We pack up our Church buses and hope to be Jesus to those that we meet on the streets, instead of really considering Matthew 25:31-46, and finding Jesus on the street. We bake a casserole and serve at our local soup kitchen once a year. (And I am not knocking one time service!- we need those casseroles, and mission teams!) Yet, we need to check our expectations of service at the door. Maybe it’s our childhood ideas of “mission trips” borrowed from western imperialism. Maybe we think that we are going to have a gigantic evangelical crusade and fill an amphitheater with the broken and the needy, but after our one-hit-wonder service, who is there to shepherd, guide, and continue the work?
Building long term relationships with the marginalized takes time. Our short term missions trips with the youth group, and our one day of service with our company, should really be about selfless service, education, and support of established organizations. These opportunities really make us feel good about ourselves, and also cause us to reflect on our lives. But how can we do lasting good?
The agencies, ministries, and boots-on-the-ground organizations do that every day. Instead of us coming in thinking we are going to do wonders and miracles, we should be considering how we can serve the agencies that truly work on the concrete daily. Instead of sending our youth to the streets to hand out sandwiches, where maybe 8 other groups have already been that day, maybe we could partner with an agency that desperately needs those sandwiches. Financially, we could give more to the organizations. Maybe we could come in and scrub their toilets or redo the shelving in their clothing closet. How can we partner for lasting, sustainable transformation?
2) Dignity. When we see a man flying a cardboard sign on the side of the road that says “Veteran, Homeless, Need Work,” How do we react? What is the most dignified thing to do?
Should we roll up our windows and avert our eyes because “Charlie” might use that $5 to go get a Miller High Life or go buy a blunt? What if we looked into Charlie’s eyes and waived? Potentially Charlie could give us the middle finger and scream. But Charlie might also know that we saw him as a human, not as a project. Also, we really need not objectify Charlie and turn him into poverty pornography by instagramming his face all over the world. How does that bring him dignity? Sure, Charlie might just want money. But Charlie might could really use a hot meal not from McDonald’s and someone to listen to him. Not so we can feel pious and pray for Charlie after slipping him $5. But really, giving Charlie dignity and listening to him across from a table where you see his eyes and hear his story, instead of standing over him, or lording “your” truth over him. You never know what you could learn from Charlie. Again, Charlie could be mentally ill, or an angel, or a mentally ill angel. (I am not advocating for single women to get out of their cars and go talk to Charlie. I am advocating for Charlie, though. Give him dignity.)
3) AGENCY. There’s an old saying that says “Beggars can’t be choosers.” And I am not an expert on the origins of colloquialisms and idioms, however, I can see someone’s Scotch-Irish grandma saying this to them after they offered no gratitude for the green beans placed on their plate at supper. While those are experiencing homelessness may not often be able to decide where and what the evening menu might be, they can have agency in their life. We don’t need to should on them, insisting that they “should” do this, or they “should” do that. Instead of us assuming that we have all the answers to fix their problems, we might ask them what they’d like to do, and what steps they are taking to do that. We need to offer them a space to be the agent of change in their worlds, not assume we can rescue everyone or that we are the saviors of the world. Granted, “Sally” might want to be a movie star, or Sally might have a cognitive difference, and possibly needs some assistance with literacy skills or smart goals.
And randomly, if you serve peanut butter and jelly and get cussed out by a person experiencing homelessness, just let it go. We should never expect a “thank you” during service. If we have an expectation that we will receive gratitude, than our service is not a gift, but an exchange. Our market place and consumeristic tendencies quickly replace “gift” with commodity and bartering.
What do you think?