The Problem of Homeless Ministries

When we believed that God was calling us to a particular ministry to love the outcasts, we wanted to first find what was happening on behalf of the poor and homeless already and try to fill in a gap. What we found was both enlightening and disturbing. To tell you the truth, there are many social service agencies and ministries that serve the homeless. But we discovered that most of the agencies prefer to serve the 85% of the homeless population that will, with great struggle and assistance, make their way out of homelessness and never return.

Then there are those agencies that serve the 10-15% of the homeless population that are known as the chronically homeless. These are the persons who have a long history of poverty, homelessness, struggle, broken relationships and families, abandonment, drug and/or alcohol abuse and mental illness. Many of them suffer with several if not most of these characteristics. These are the hard cases. The ones that are derided, forgotten, and abused; written off as worthless. Most of the agencies and ministries that reach out to these forgotten persons provide a space for them to sleep (although less and less are interested in this group) and eat (most do the “soup kitchen“), they provide some social services, minimal access to rehabs, some “housing first” programs, etc. But the reality is that the more pressing need is to know that someone, in a world that hates them and casts them aside, actually loves them.

Likely, their whole lives they have been pushed aside and abused. And because of this life they are unlikely to trust anyone. Even those who claim to be on their side. Many of these agencies and ministries do great work, but there are some “ministries” and churches who, while trying to do good, reinforce this separation and abuse. They show up, seemingly out of nowhere, to hand out a sandwich or a coat. And as quickly as they appear, they disappear. Or there are those that are consistently showing up from the suburbs but have no intention of truly entering into the lives and suffering of those they claim to serve. They stand at an arms length. Usually, at least in Atlanta, that looks like white suburbanites doing the work and then standing to the side while black homeless men receive the meal and hear a sermon (or an ideology). Then there are some churches that minister to the homeless out of their back doors, after they go through a program, or set up special services for them (so the homeless don’t feel uncomfortable), but won’t invite them into the community to worship side by side with them. What makes things worse is that these groups not only reinforce division, racism, and classism, they also undercut the work of those churches, ministries and agencies that are seeking to actually care for the homeless people. It’s one thing to do something for the homeless, it’s quite another to love a particular homeless man. If you want to know who the “real Christians” are, ask a homeless man in his most candid of moments. He will be able to name you those persons, churches and agencies that really care for him, and those who are in it to feel good about themselves or who are in it for their own glory.

Then there are those institutions and persons who truly care for the homeless; who want to be with them, know them, and enter into their suffering. Most of what they do is open up their space to serve the homeless. But there are always those that will go untouched, even if they show up to eat. This is because many of this sub-group of homeless do not trust the world or feel unworthy to actually be loved by others. Unfortunately this is reinforced in them by Christians and churches who do the “drive by” ministries or “ministry tourism” mentioned above.

So for these untouched homeless, no one effectively cares for them. The way to care for them is to, day in and day out, walk with them where they live. Develop relationships with them. Show them that you want to know them, that you care for them and are willing to enter into their suffering. When they rebuff you, then you show up again the next day revealing your unconditional love for them, praise God. You stay away from agendas, stereo-types, and a priori judgments about who they are and what they need. Then you can respond to real people with concrete and unique struggles. Then you can begin to break down the barriers that separate persons from one another and society. Then God is free to work. Then you will be changed.

What caught us off-guard is not that most ministries and agencies invited homeless persons to come to their place, that is necessary for many of the services that they offer. What surprised us was that there were few who were willing to consistently go out to where the homeless live and suffer the time and effort it takes to make meaningful friendships. Sure, if they hosted a mission team, they would take the team out to where the homeless lived, but when that team left they didn’t return until the next team. We found this to be bothersome at best: either go be with the homeless and develop the relationships, or don’t use “experiences” with the homeless to boost your income from mission teams. That’s called using people and it sure isn’t Christian no matter how you wrap it up.

So that was it, that was the void God was calling us to fill. To not only care about the homeless, but to be with them and all that that entails. This is why our guiding statement is not an empty motto, but a daily task master: Church on the Street is the living answer to the question, “How can we be both for and with our neighbor, especially our most vulnerable neighbor?” All we do emanates from and supports this one task.

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