Engage the Homeless? How?
This post is adapted from a talk by Josiah Haken from NYC Relief as part of our Homelessness Workshop on Jan. 13. Josiah blogs here.
So many of our homeless brothers and sisters are out there without any idea if they matter. They are getting shuffled around from shelter to shelter or soup kitchen to soup kitchen. They are getting abused, harassed, and in some cases assaulted because they are an easy target. Many are suffering from mental illness, or physical disabilities, many are in relationship crisis, and many are medicating the pain that they feel both emotionally and physically with addictive substances like heroin, crack, and alcohol.
God hears the cries of our homeless neighbors. Psalm 34:18 says that “The LORD is near to the brokenhearted And saves those who are crushed in spirit.” God wants to redeem the pain that they feel: the pain of loneliness, the pain of shame, the pain of worthlessness, and the pain of invisibility.
And He is calling His people to step up and respond to these needs offer folks the one thing that we all need to live a life of purpose and meaning: we can offer hope. Here are 3 practical ways to offer hope to our friends on the street this winter:
1. SEE THEM
See our homeless neighbors as the children of God that they are. Ask God to open your eyes to reality of their humanity. We need to see these folks as people, before we will stop treating them like problems. We need God to awaken us to the hurt, the shame, the loneliness, the hopelessness that our brothers and sisters are facing every single day.
2. LISTEN TO THEM
Listen to them instead of speaking at them. We need to create space to hear what our homeless brothers and sisters have to say. If we approach people who are hopeless with advice, criticism, or direction, we miss out on the opportunity to learn where they have been, what they have tried, and more importantly, who they are.
3. RESPOND TO THEM
Respond to the very real needs that they have with compassionate care and humility.
- Think communion, not charity: That means not just throwing money, socks, granola bars, etc. to people, but taking the time to ask for their name and for their story. Don't just buy lunch FOR the person... eat lunch WITH the person. Eat in a public space. Sit at the same table. Give thanks to God for the meal before eating. This isn’t something you can do every day, probably. But if you can find a way to do it once, you might be blown away by the power of that encounter.
- Be ready to give & receive prayer: On a strictly relational level, offering to pray shows the person you are talking to that you care. It also shows them that you believe there is hope. And most importantly it reveals your identity as a follower of Jesus and allows room for the Holy Spirit to do something crazy that we couldn’t even have imagined. Another cool thing to do is ask the person you are talking to to pray for YOU. This is a great way to empower them, and even remind them that God still hears their prayers.
- Always carry new socks & resource cards: Having socks is great because you can always say to the person, “hey, I’m not going to give you any money, but I have a brand new pair of socks. Would that be helpful?” This simple sentence can open the door to so much more. Another way you can respond to the needs in front of you is by making it a habit of carrying information cards for free resources in the area. If you meet someone in the street, try saying, “Here is a list of places around here where someone can get a free meal and maybe even connections to other resources like a place to sleep or a social worker.”
- Be discerning: Bring a friend with you if you're going to engage someone on the street for the first time, and use common sense if you discern someone is angry, upset, or under the influence. And if you want to go deeper with folks in the street, the best thing you can do is educate yourself on the resources that are available to the homeless and the intake procedure of those places.
- Volunteer on a consistent basis: Partner with our affiliate organizations that are sustainably and holistically meeting the needs of the homeless population in New York City.
But God’s primary method of redemption in this world is the movement of his people. You and I will not be able to solve the “homelessness problem” as defined by the world and the society we live in. But we can carry someone’s mat to the feet of Jesus.