How Can I Help the Homeless?

With homelessness at an epidemic level and with the cold weather setting in, people are regularly asking

  • What can I do?
  • What do I do?

The issues are large and complex and these don't solve every situation that might come your way, but can hopefully frame how to be better prepared when the opportunity arises.

Pray

It's no small thing to take a moment and pray because this is so much more than a transaction of information and resources.  This is God approaching me to teach me and show me things.  This is more than just doing something and feeling good about myself.  This is an opportunity to encounter God in the life of another who has experienced things I might never even consider or fathom.  And so, before we speak or act, consider praying.  This doesn't mean some big, elaborate, lengthy prayer, but instead can simply sound like,

  • "God, what can I do?'"
  • "God, how do you want me to help in this situation?"
  • "God show me the way forward here"

Extend

As important as asking God what to say and do, is learning to ask the person, “What do you need?” Jesus regularly asked “What is it you want?” Sure, it might have seemed obvious in many of those moments in the gospels, but Jesus is teaching us something about not making assumptions.  This is allowing the person to articulate their own desires and concerns.
This is about learning to extend a listening ear, to hear the struggles, extending patience to the long story.  This about learning to extend understanding and empathy. This means we stop making assumptions about what has led them to the situation they find themselves in. This is about remembering that their struggle might have as much to do with systemic injustices and circumstances beyond their control, instead of assuming they have put themselves in this predicament. Lastly, but not least this is about extending grace.  We engage and ask, and the person might not appreciate our approach or our questions.  The temptation to frustration and even disdain might set in as we are met with opposition to our attempts at kindness.  Milton Vincent so poignantly helps us in those moments when he says, [this is a longer quote but it's worth slowing down to consider this]

Like nothing else could ever do, the gospel instills in me a heart for the downcast, the poverty-stricken, and those in need of physical mercies, especially when such persons are of the household of faith.

When I see persons who are materially poor, I instantly feel a kinship with them, for they are physically what I was spiritually when my heart was closed to Christ. Perhaps some of them are in their condition because of sin, but so was I. Perhaps they are unkind when I try to help them; but I, too, have been spiteful to God when He has sought to help me. Perhaps they are thankless and even abuse the kindness I show them, but how many times have I been thankless and used what God has given me to serve selfish ends?

Perhaps a poverty-stricken person will be blessed and changed as a result of some kindness I show them. If so, God be praised for His grace through me. But if the person walks away unchanged by my kindness, then I still rejoice over the opportunity to love as God loves. Perhaps the person will repent in time; but for now, my heart is chastened and made wiser by the tangible depiction of what I myself have done to God on numerous occasions.

The gospel reminds me daily of the spiritual poverty into which I was born and also of the staggering generosity of Christ towards me. Such reminders instill in me both a felt connection to the poor and a desire to show them the same generosity that has been lavished on me. When ministering to the poor with these motivations, I not only preach the gospel to them through word and deed, but I reenact the gospel to my own benefit as well.
— Milton Vincent, A Gospel Primer for Christians

Provide

OK, yeah, yeah, pray and extend but really, how can I help them?  Well, once you have figured out what help this person is seeking, remember that it might have been just listening, even seeing and acknowledging them, has done more than we know, here are a few websites and organizations that can provide help to those struggling through homelessness and joblessness.

  1. Bowery Mission and NY Rescue Mission - Both these missions have a multitude of services offered around the city including shelter, food and employment training.
  2. Coalition for the Homeless - This is the best place to look and be informed about where the shelters are close by, so we can then be prepared to point people to shelter when they need it.

Invite

The way of Jesus is an invitation into community and when we are faced with the struggles and trials of life, we are grateful for the care of the church, to walk with us, pray for and extend care and support to us.  This encounter with the person on the street or the subway is not just one where we can provide resources but also an invitation to relationship with others who want to extend more of this mercy and kindness in an ongoing way.  Don't miss the opportunity to invite them to your church or to a church close to where they are going and so allow this to be an opportunity for God’s hands to be extended in a sustained way.

This sounds more arduous and involved and indeed it is.  Certainly, there are going to be those moments on the train or on the way home from work when we overlook, walk by, or say nothing. But the hope is, that as we learn to see and step into these moments, we would learn to not only be better prepared to serve the person in need, but also see God in and through those who are asking for help around us.