What We’ve Learned About The Homeless

We began a homeless ministry in January, and we have housed from 2-10 people each night since then, using the existing facilities of 8 different churches.  This IHELP model (Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Program) offers our homeless guests up to 90 days in a shelter, with showers, dinners, brown-bag-lunches-to-go, and transportation to the sites.  It is an incredible ministry.

It is also very challenging.  And we have learned a lot about ministering to the homeless:

  • The first thing we learned is that we still have a whole lot to learn about the homeless and about homeless ministry.  We are not experts, by any stretch of the imagination, just a group of churches with some incredible volunteers who want to help people.

  • We have learned that there are many homeless that we are unable to help.  Our ministry is not equipped to help people with serious mental health issues, with serious addictive issues, and with serious medical issues.  We cannot accept those with sex crimes in their past.  And we can’t offer shelter to families with children or pets.  But we can usually refer those we can’t help to someone who can.

  • The homeless people we have sheltered are homeless due to a variety of factors. The ones we have talked to list these reasons:

    • Drug (including alcohol) abuse.

    • Divorce or family breakups.

    • Job loss.

    • Mental illness.

    • Medical issues.  Sometimes, the medical issues led to job losses or financial strains. But in a surprising number of cases, we’ve had hospitals calling us when a patient is about to be released and has nowhere to go.

    • Moving without adequate resources or planning.  One couple who moved across country counted on immediately (within 24 hours) finding a job, an unrealistic expectation.

    • Broken relationships.  Many were staying with friends or family until the relationship soured.

    • Refreshingly, some people were honest enough to tell us that “stupidity” was the reason.  They spent all their money on frivolous things and then didn’t have money for rent.

  • Many of the people in our homeless ministry have been helped tremendously.  Our sample size is small, but we’ve already helped people get jobs, get their own apartments, get into subsidized housing, kick some bad addictions, renew family relationships, and make commitments to Christ. That’s why we do the ministry!

But there is an exasperating side to working with the homeless. We knew that this was true, but it is still frustrating:  Most homeless people don’t want to go to a shelter.  We’ve offered our shelter to hundreds; only dozens have accepted our offer. Some don’t want the rules and the restrictions that come with a shelter. Some want to continue their drinking, their drugs, or their panhandling.  Some have had bad experiences in shelters. And some are too proud to accept help.  Perhaps it is different in a harsher climate, but many people in our area choose to be homeless and are content to live on the street by handouts, panhandling, and government aid.

So I’ve had to rethink how I minister to homeless people.  Here are my personal guidelines:

  • I routinely offer homeless people a business card with information about how to enroll in our homeless ministry.  (You can get some in our church office.)  And I will give them a brown bag lunch.  And that’s all.  If they don’t want to accept the help we have to offer, I don’t feel guilty about walking away.

  • I NEVER pay for a motel room.  If they can’t sleep on a mat with people in a shared room, then I can’t help them.

  • I NEVER give cash.  I am a sucker for a hard-luck story.  People know that about me and even expect pastors to be that way.  So I may cry with someone, but I won’t give them cash.  I have decided that offering food and shelter is more than enough.

  • I NEVER give gift cards.  At one time, I offered fast-food gift cards to homeless or hungry people.  Now that I know there are businesses which will buy these cards for cash, I have decided not to give them away.  I will give them a brown bag lunch.  I’ve even offered to buy their lunches, but I won’t give cash or cards.

  • I no longer feel guilty about asking homeless people to leave our property.  I’m always courteous.  And I always tell them about our shelter.  But I don’t want homeless people who have refused our shelter to scare away people who come to worship with us.

Loving people is a challenge.  And I will always offer love.  And I thank God that we now have a way to show direct and tangible love to homeless people.

Unfortunately, not everyone will receive the love we have to offer.


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