When Serving The Homeless: Help, But Help Well

I have long felt a draw toward serving the homeless. It started back in my early youth ministry days when I took a group of teenagers to spend a night on the streets in Richmond, VA. It was hosted by a wonderful organization called CARITAS, and the event was an effective way to open our eyes to the plight of people who are homeless, and consider them from Jesus’ perspective.

Since then, I have helped as much as I can on a purely voluntary basis. I emphasize “voluntary basis” because there’s an important distinction between what “lay people” can do for the homeless versus what professional social workers can do. I’ll say more on that later. For now I’ll just share that over the past ten years I’ve sought out a handful of opportunities to help people who are homeless, and I’ve learned one very critical truth:


I’ll explain what I mean with a story:

Three years ago I met a man and woman who were homeless and traveled around together. They camped in some woods near our church and started coming to worship on Sunday’s and dropping by the office during the week for coffee or to get out of the elements. I often gave them rides, I purchased and ordered birth certificates that they’d lost, I spent time in their camp, paid for motel rooms when the weather was bad, got people in our church to donate money for drug and alcohol rehab, drove them to court when they got arrested and even visited them in jail a few times. I considered them my friends and, for a while, was happy to help them.

What many people noticed that I could not, was that their entire world rested on my shoulders and a very unhealthy attachment was growing. After several months, it became clear to me that I was not the bridge between them and a new life off the streets, I was simply their current form of survival. The word many people use is dependence, and I’m reluctant to use that word because it has such baggage and negative connotation, as though we should dehumanize people for finding ways to survive. The fault was not theirs, but mine. I believed I possessed the ability to help two chronically homeless people get off the streets for good. And the simple truth is, I don’t. In fact, no one does by themselves.

Those two friends are now long gone. One moved out west to Arizona and the other found a new friend and went north to Missouri. I still get their mail from time to time because our church served as their mailing address – just another way I sincerely thought I was helping.

So I’ve learned to take Jesus’ words to heart when helping anyone – homeless or otherwise.

Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? …Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand?

Empiricists and analytical types rejoice at this passage! For once Jesus is talking like a sane person! Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Don’t spend money you don’t have. Be realistic!

Let’s be clear, though: this is not a call to do nothing. It’s certainly a call to do something. But we must recognize what we can do, and then do that very, very well.

With my two friends, it’s like I was trying to build a skyscraper when I only had supplies and manpower for a tool shed. When we take on something that’s out of our league, we can do great harm.

So I’ve learned to narrow down what I’m capable of doing, and doing consistently. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

1 – Look for the humanity

Sometimes “the homeless” become a prop, an object that we talk about in sermons or political rallies. We assume people experiencing homelessness are all carbon copies of each other with the same background, same path into homelessness, and require the same path out. We treat them like they’re stock items at Costco, all crammed in a box and wrapped with shrink wrap just waiting to be moved out. We often forget that these are people with stories, with moms and dads, with kids, with beating hearts and thoughtful minds.

And because they are people, they have needs just like anybody else. Sure, they need food, clothing, and shelter, but they also need friendship, love, gratitude, entertainment, to experience goodness and beauty, to be clean, to be safe, etc. etc. We ought not criticize our neighbors who are homeless for having a cell phone, for wearing a nice jacket, or for spending money on a safe hotel room once in a while. They’re people just like us, and their needs go beyond calories and a dry floor.

2 – Know my available resources

Our church has operated a food pantry since before I came on staff. We don’t require ID, we don’t require you to live in the same zip code as the church, we don’t require you to attend our church or pray a prayer or dance a jig to get food. Our requirement is that you’re hungry. We give it away for free to anybody who asks. Yes, we get taken advantage of.

But I love having our food pantry because I know I have something to offer people needing help. When one of our neighbors who is homeless comes and asks me for money, I can say, “I don’t have any money, but would you like some Pop Tarts?” We get random calls from time to time from people asking for assistance with their electric bills. We’re a small church with very limited funds, so while I have to tell them I cannot pay their light bill, I can offer them a couple grocery bags of food.

We also have a small clothing pantry of mostly mens clothes. It started as an outreach to men leaving prison and re-entering society. We mostly have suits and polos for interviews, but we also have a handful of t-shirts and blue jeans. Occasionally representatives from the prison will still drop by to grab a few things for someone being released, but mostly it’s our neighbors who are homeless that utilize the clothing pantry.

Food and clothing are not always what people need, but it’s what we have to offer. I am learning the holy sacrament of doing what I can, and being satisfied with that.

Caring for our neighbors who are homeless is a team effort. It should not be something that any one person or groups tries to do alone. By trying to solve every problem, we run a mile wide and an inch deep, robbing our neighbors of the opportunity to get better care from those who can provide it. So our church tries to get word out as often as possible that we provide food and clothing, and we will provide it to the best of our capability.

3 – Believe the truth

One thing I’ve learned from having relationships with people who are chronically homeless is that a common survival mechanism is to convince a well-meaning person that they are the homeless person’s only hope. The common formula looks like this:

I’ve done everything right

Forces outside my control have caused things to go very wrong

You are the only person who can help

A very common way this plays out in church life is by receiving phone calls from people saying it’s their last night in a motel and they need money for a couple more nights until their check comes in. I honestly cannot count the number of times I’ve heard that call over my 14 years of ministry in three different churches in three different states. And, while it’s sometimes true that the person is about to be out on the street (I usually verify with hotel management), I have to keep one thing in mind: It is not contingent upon me to solve every person’s problem. And, as I mentioned above, paying for hotel rooms is not something we can do well.

Today, a couple living in the woods near our church told me the man was fired from his job because the woman had a seizure, so he chose to stay with her rather than going to work. And now they have no money for her medicine and asked if I could loan them the $20 they need.

It’s a good story, and one that ropes in a lot of people. But I know that:

  • A) Her medicine doesn’t cost $20, it’s free
  • B) “Seizure” is often a reason given because it’s serious, but also completely unverifiable if the person doesn’t seek medical treatment
  • C) If I give them $20 today for medicine, another request for money is right around the corner. It’s not because they’re bad people, but because they have found a new form of survival in me. I become the guy who thinks he can solve all their problems and they are more than happy to let me try.

I simply said that I did not have $20 to give them – which is true – and did not feel the least bit guilty because giving money to the homeless is not something I can do effectively.

The truth is I am not the best person to help people experiencing homelessness. Social workers, counselors, mental health professionals, job training agencies, Social Security managers…these people are far more equipped to help with their real problems than a guy with a messiah complex. So the very best thing I can do to help the homeless is play my part and avoid getting sucked into the belief that I can save the whole world.

If you’re interested in helping the homeless – or any marginalized population – here’s my advice: Find a role you can fill well and consistently, then get to work playing your part.


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