By Conover Swofford
I never planned on being homeless. I don’t think anyone does. Suddenly I was faced with a very scary situation, but like every situation that comes upon us, God was already working it all out for my good. He also gave me a new perspective on the issue of homelessness that I would like to share with you.
When I became homeless, God provided a shelter for me to stay in. I never felt truly homeless because I had a roof over my head, food to eat, indoor plumbing, and a bed to sleep in. This has made me become much more aware of the plight of those living on the street. They have no roofs over their heads, no laundry facilities, no indoor plumbing.
However, in my city the street homeless have access to plenty of good food, clothing, and other resources such as free bus passes, job training programs, financial management classes, medical care, counseling, and rehab programs. The city I live in is one of the best homeless resource places in America. People who are struggling come from all over because of the help that is available to them.
Although my friend Lena feels that she has been treated well by everyone, especially where her health care is concerned, she said that she has found that people who discover that you live in a shelter suddenly feel sorry for you. There is nothing to be sorry about. Being in a shelter is not a tragic situation; it is an opportunity to take advantage of many programs that are designed to help you get back on your feet financially, socially, and spiritually.
I have become very involved with my church’s ministry to the homeless shelters in our city, as well as with the street homeless. There is a difference between the two. In my city, homeless people living on the street have several camps in various places where they stay. The camps also have their own rules and hierarchy. I have known some people who got kicked out of a camp because of their refusal to follow the rules.
One of the main differences between street homelessness and shelters is that those on the street have no laundry or bathroom facilities. One of the shelters has a showering program for people living on the streets, but no one has any laundry facilities for them. So those on the streets basically wear their clothes until they get dirty and then throw them away and wear different clothes. Because of this dynamic, the demand for clothing is great. Most of the churches in my city, as well as the Salvation Army and Valley Rescue Mission, have clothing closets for people who are homeless.
In addition, many of the churches here have programs that include food banks. There are also many places here that feed people on a daily basis and others that feed them on certain days of the week or month. Food and clothing are the two greatest needs that we try to meet for any of our homeless neighbors.
Hearing from Helpers
How do we serve people without demeaning them? How do we treat others as equally loved by God—not as projects? I asked this question to people from several nonprofits, and here are their perspectives:
“When I started this feeding ministry, I vowed that I would feed the hungry as if they were my own family. I, along with all of the volunteers, have maintained this standard for the past four years. After all, we are all in God’s family and all are equally loved by him. I never think of these people as a project, but as brothers and sisters in Christ. In our singing, praying, and service to those in need, we always try to keep the focus on Jesus rather than ourselves.” —Barbara S., coordinator for Feeding Our Neighbors
“It’s all about building relationships. I can learn from you as much as you can learn from me. It’s about listening.” —Crystal F., case manager at Community Case Management Program for Women
“We cannot look at needy people and think, They’re probably getting assistance from some government program. We cannot treat our neighbors as some faceless government number, and we cannot let the fact of government assistance rob us of our joy in attending to the needs of our neighbors on the street by helping to keep them clothed and fed. Jesus said, ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me . . . Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ (Matthew 25:35, 36, 40). We need to help our neighbors on the street just as we would gladly help Jesus if we saw him in this situation.” —Regina D., coordinator for God’s Helping Hands
One of the neighborhoods I lived in for seven years had two street homeless people in the area. That neighborhood had a strong sense of community, so without a lot of fanfare, we took care of our two homeless neighbors. We made sure they were fed, had clothes, got plenty of liquids in the hot weather, and had blankets for the cold weather. Neither of them would agree to sleep inside, so we made sure they had shelter on our porches to keep the rain off them and to keep them at least a little bit warmer in the cold.
Because of my own situation, I have come to view homelessness in a different light. I have met some people who actually prefer to live on the street. They have done it for many years and have become comfortable with it. Should we refuse to help them because living on the street is their choice? Of course not. Jesus said we would always have the poor with us. We have no idea what made them choose to live in their situation. We are not here to judge those who are homeless or the situation they find themselves in.
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15, 16). We are here to minister to God’s children—to their physical and spiritual needs. God brings people who are homeless to us and us to them to give us the opportunity to serve him with gladness by helping his children.
There are many ways to help. In my city most of the churches have programs that need volunteers, like soup kitchens and clothes closets. There are also organizations that deal specifically with programs to help homelessness and they can use volunteers there also. Just look around and see how you can help. Offer to buy someone a meal. And remember: A hand up is something completely different than a handout.
Conover Swofford is a freelance writer in Columbus, Georgia.
Always ask what a shelter or homeless program needs at that particular time. It varies.
• Black sturdy shoes, sneakers—YES. Any other color calls attention to the shoes and makes them a target for getting stolen. No velcro—because of the wear these shoes get, velcro fastenings soon become loose and broken. Tie shoes are best.
• Dresses—NO. Style changes quickly. People on the street can’t/won’t wear them. Instead, basic skirts, nice tops.
• Sturdy clothing—NO. People on the street wear layers and have no washing machine facilities. Basically when their clothes get dirty, they throw them away and wear something else.
• Hoodies—YES. Good quality ones can be used under coats for extra warmth. Hoods are a plus for rainy weather.
• Lightweight backpacks—YES. Backpacks with handles and wheels (like some luggage) are very much appreciated.
• Seasonal clothing—YES (for the current season). With no storage, people who are homeless basically carry all their possessions around. They can’t carry a whole wardrobe.
• Socks—YES. No “slipper socks” with the little grips on the bottom—walking far in those causes sores on the bottoms of feet.
• Jeans—YES. All sizes, year round, men’s and women’s are needed.
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