As I would imagine is true for you, homelessness is an issue of which I have been aware for most of my life. I remember riding in my parents’ car as a kid passing someone on a corner with a sign or pushing a shopping cart containing everything to their name. I didn’t completely understand what was happening, but their weather and life worn appearance told me our life circumstances were very different. I would come to understand that this was because, for whatever reason, they did not have a home.
During my teenage years, I had the opportunity to volunteer at feeding programs, or “soup kitchens” as we called them at the time. This literally put me face to face with an issue I had only viewed from a distance to that point. While I still did not know their life story, I began to see people struggling with homelessness as just that: people not just a societal issue. This was reinforced one day when my dad decided to give the family tent to a homeless man he often passed in our town. I have no idea what happened to that man, but I do know it taught me that people have value, no matter their circumstances.
Despite these lessons, homelessness continued to be an issue for someone else to solve in my eyes. Sure, I would occasionally put money in the cup of person as I drove or walked by but I didn’t see their problem as my problem. The truth is I also believed their choices had landed them in that position and different choices would allow them to escape it. Whether or not this was true in every situation, it allowed me to rationalize my tendency to look past the person living in homelessness.
This all changed when one day in my twenties I decided to go under the bridge. Well, it was more of a group decision. I was a part of a group of guys, a discipleship group as we often refer to it in the church, who were challenging each other to live more intentionally into the life God had given us. Like most people, we were just going through the motions of life. However, we believed it didn’t have to be that way. We could actually follow the Jesus we claimed to trust in and love people the way he calls us to. This led us to decide to venture under a bridge in our town to love the people who lived there. That’s right: people lived under the bridge.
I tell the full story in my book Hope Realized, but this step turned homelessness into a problem with a face and a name. It was no longer just “someone else’s problem”. After going under the bridge, we found out about the local cold weather shelter, an overnight shelter where many people would stay when sleeping outside in the elements became particularly uncomfortable and dangerous. Energized by the step we had taken and the people we had met, we decided to find out how we could become involved at the cold weather shelter. What started as a single step, grew into a weekly volunteer opportunity at the cold weather shelter, and now many years later has become a part of the DNA of Crossroads Church: loving and serving our homeless neighbors is just a part of who we are.
“How can I help the homeless near me?”
It is the title of this article and a question many people ask. So, what does the story above have to do with how you can help the homeless near you? It is a picture of what it often looks like to get involved and the power of taking one step. For most of us this is the problem: we haven’t taken the first step. We care enough about the issue to “Google it”, but are unsure of what to do next and how we can make a difference. I will speak to the first concern momentarily, but as you can see in my story, one step can make a huge difference. This has really been the story of my life: When I have been willing to take one step, it has almost always led me to the next one, and opened up opportunities to use my gifts and experiences to make a difference in the life of someone else. I just had to be willing to get started.
What should you do? The good news is there are many ways you can help someone struggling with homelessness. There are opportunities to address immediate needs such as serving at an overnight shelter or a feeding program of some kind. While this is not the ultimate solution, it is a real need and often a starting point for the homeless.
Once someone’s immediate needs are addressed it opens the door to moving beyond their current circumstances. As I talk about in my book, it is addressing the need for practical and spiritual hope, or a real opportunity and a reframed identity. You can use this frame of reference to guide to an opportunity for you to make a difference. Consider your gifts and experiences. Is there something you bring to the table that would create a real opportunity for someone else? Could you play a role in helping someone see that they are not hopeless but rather created on purpose and for a purpose by a God who loves them? Practically, this could look like serving at a job training center, or a recovery program. It could also be taking a chance on someone by providing them a job, or becoming a mentor of sorts, walking along with someone to encourage them as they take steps to move beyond the hopelessness that is holding them captive. Next, find an organization or person who is currently serving the homeless in your area and could benefit from what you bring to the table.
Whatever step you decide to take, I would challenge you to take this one as well: ask yourself if you believe there is hope for the homeless. In a previous article, I talked about the role our perception plays in the way we treat someone. This is something I had to as well. Do I truly believe this person was created for something more? Working through this question will prepare you to truly make a difference in the life of someone who is homeless. In fact, it is one of the steps in the free resource I created called 5 Foundational Steps to Make a True Difference in Someone’s Life. Click here if you would like to learn more about this resource.
How can you help the homeless near you? Determine what you have to offer, take a step, and consider what you believe about the people you are serving. It might sound too simple and maybe even too small, but my experience tells me it could make a life-changing difference.