Sometimes, we really want to help, but we just don’t know what to do or how to respond. Almost every week, I’m approached with questions about serving the homeless, so here are the ones I hear most (Let me tell you…this would be so much easier if we were sitting together over coffee!).
5 FAQ's on Homelessness
1. Is everyone homeless for the same reason? In short, no. In my experience, a whole host of circumstances trigger homelessness. Some of the most common include loss of job or significant financial crisis, abuse at home, recent incarceration, and mental illness.
Something to keep in mind: there’s a difference between chronic homelessness, and temporary homelessness. Chronic homelessness is often perpetuated by mental illness (which varies greatly both in levels of severity and in diagnosis). The images that scroll through your mind when you hear the word “homeless” often represent chronic homelessness. Temporary homelessness is brought about by some sort of crisis - anything from a fire, to eviction, to loss of employment. Many who are temporarily homeless are what sociologists would consider the working poor - employed but unable to earn enough to maintain housing. At True To Life Ministries, the majority of homeless clients we see are temporarily homeless.
With more than 70% of Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, many of our friends, family members, or coworkers are closer to homelessness than they might think.
2. Why don’t people just get a job? For those suffering from severe mental illness, maintaining employment is often impossible. It’s not a lack of desire or issue of laziness; their mental illness, or lack of treatment options, simply prevents it.
The longer someone remains “temporarily” homeless, the harder it is to reintegrate into the community. Day-to-day routines of laundry, meal preparation, getting children up and dressed in the morning, getting to work on time, etc. can feel overwhelming from inside a home or apartment with running water, electricity, a refrigerator to store food, an electric outlet to power an alarm clock, and consistent access to showers and laundry facilities. But what if you can’t store or cook food? What if there isn’t a shower down the hall? What if you can’t plug in an alarm clock? What if you don’t have access to a washer and dryer to keep your kids’ school clothes clean? How much more overwhelming and impossible do all of those things become? Then there’s the complication of needing an address to renew an I.D. or driver’s license, money to maintain transportation to search for a job or to go to work once a job is obtained, and the challenge of keeping a cell phone activated to receive calls from potential employers. The list goes on and on.
For those who do find employment, obtaining housing isn’t always an option right away. It takes time to save for a deposit, and high rent costs often make it difficult for those earning low wages to afford housing.
3. How do I respond when someone who appears hungry and/or homeless asks for money? Do I take every homeless person out for lunch? No. Are some panhandlers posing as homeless to make a buck? Yes. Is it really my responsibility to respond to true need? Yes. Is there a formula for answering this question correctly? I wish, but this is not math. We are talking about loving people here, and none of us appreciate being treated like a number.
Are we helping or supporting a destructive pattern of manipulation and dependency? How can we know if our giving is helping or actually hurting? Well, the only way to know for sure is to be in a relationship with the person. Obviously, that’s not always practical. So in those moments, pray. I mean it, friend. Talk to the Lord. If the Holy Spirit prompts you to drop a few dollars in the cup or to treat them to a meal, do it. When in doubt, I prefer to err on the side of generosity.
Handing out cash is never my go-to. Offering to take the person to lunch is better - it’s easy to see the outward problem and miss the person all together, but when we sit together and break bread, that’s the start of community. See them. Know their name. Hear their story. Learn something.
Offer a ride to a reputable homeless ministry that is equipped to provide assistance. If you live in an urban area and you frequent intersections with people holding signs asking for money or help, keep some ziplock bags with snacks, socks, deodorant and other basic toiletries handy. Include a hand-written note of encouragement and offer them as gifts when the opportunity arises. Whatever you do, however you engage, remember, people are people. We appreciate eye contact and kindness. We long to be loved and treated with respect.
4. What’s the biggest need for someone who is homeless? Our most natural response is to pull everything we can find together to address outward needs - housing, food, clothing, etc. Don’t get me wrong, these are legitimate needs. But people who have been on the streets for any length of time will tell you their greatest need isn’t food or shelter. It’s a friend. Community. Meaningful conversation. Someone to walk the journey with. A place to belong. Because when you are homeless, you don’t belong anywhere. Nothing is permanent. Your identity and dignity fade, and loneliness sets in. A loneliness beyond loneliness. It’s deep and cold, and it’s the heaviest burden of all.
5. How can I personally make a difference? If you don’t know where to start, start here. In addition to the above recommendations, keep these in mind:
- Pray for the homeless. If possible, pray for specific people you see or meet. Pray for them to find hope in Christ, and pray for them to know they are not alone. Pray when you are alone and pray when you are with your family, friends, and coworkers.
- While handing out cash to random people on the street isn’t my go-to, I do think the financial support of organizations and ministries helping people overcome homelessness through job training, case management, and support services is absolutely a critical part of our commitment to help those who are homeless. Many do not receive government funds, and are often supported almost entirely by individuals, churches, and businesses who see the incredible value of their work. If we are looking for a place to put our dollars, let's give generously to these organizations. Let’s make sure their help remains available to those who need it most.
- Volunteer with organizations and ministries helping people overcome homelessness. Get personally involved, and make it part of your ongoing schedule.
Question: What would it take for you to personally connect with someone who is currently homeless? How could you offer meaningful encouragement? How could you help connect them to helpful local resources?