People frequently ask me, “How should I respond to the homeless I encounter?”
If you live in or around South Florida, interacting with a homeless person is almost unavoidable. Gas stations, grocery stores, street corners and medians — just to name a few — are all common places many of us encounter persons experiencing homelessness. Some hold up signs asking for work, money, or food; others appear at park benches, bus stops or outside the doors of your church or business — all looking for some type of help.
Do I talk with them? Do I lock my doors? Should I give them money? Do they really need food? Are they addicts? These are just a few of the questions I’m frequently asked when it comes to dealing with those who are homeless in our community.
Though the answers to these questions are oftentimes based on individual circumstances and the Holy Spirit’s prompting in your life, there are a few things that can help guide your response.
Remember your calling
As Christians we are divinely and uniquely called to be a people of peace, mercy and justice. We are called to demonstrate what God’s kingdom looks like, lived out here on earth. As a Christian, avoiding the homeless isn’t an option. The glorious reality of God’s new and coming kingdom is that homelessness will be no more. When you encounter a homeless person, take a moment and ask yourself, “how can I preview that reality for this person right now?”
Be willing to be taken advantage of
A close friend and mentor of mine once told me that Christians, more than anyone else, should be willing to be taken advantage of — time and time again. At first glance, the notion of being taken advantage of seems well, rather off putting. However, as the people called by God to live in light of the motivation of his grace and love towards us, being willing to be taken advantage of is all part of the story.
God asks us to put what we believe about Him into action, not worry about the outcome. Will some take advantage of your help? Yes. Does that mean you shouldn’t help? No. Mercy wouldn’t be mercy if it were worried about being misused. Through Jesus, we have the ultimate example of what unconditional mercy and love looks like. Thankfully, his mercy towards us is new every morning — that includes those without homes and those who have made mistake after mistake.
Remember they are worthy
We are all created in God’s image and demonstrate his likeness. Homeless people are worthy creations, deserving of your merciful help and support. Just because they are homeless and may have made some mistakes in their life doesn’t mean they’ve lost God’s image and divine design. Over the years I have talked with many homeless individuals who have made some of the very same mistakes I have made in my life. The only difference was that I had the means, resources, family, and community to better mask my sin, mistakes and shortcomings. Somewhere along the way, they had lost that luxury.
People are complex
No two persons experiencing homelessness are the same and neither are their circumstances. Peel back their ragged clothing, dirty socks and possible addiction, and you’ll find something we all share in common: pain.
Everyone’s story is shaped by pain. Some find socially acceptable ways to express it, others understandably look to anything to help numb it. You see, overtime year after year, life’s painful twists and turns often erode our sense of trust and hope. We begin to let our experiences erode our ability to find rest and the motivation to want something better for ourselves. As you encounter homeless persons, remember their story is complex, help them find that motivation to want something more, something better for themselves. Often times, simply looking them in the eyes, acknowledging their humanity and presence is a good place to start.
There’s more to the Story
There are over 4000 homeless men, women and children in Broward County alone. The man or woman you see living on the street is just one of the many faces of homelessness in our community. Families and children are unfortunately often the forgotten face of homelessness. There are over 200 families – mothers and their children on the 211 homeless helpline’s waiting list seeking shelter. On average, 20 of these families report literally sleeping in their car or on the street.
Thankfully, though, churches, businesses and individuals like YOU are being uncommonly generous and are working to provide real and tangible solutions for these families and individuals facing homelessness, working together to see broken families renewed and lives restored. Consider asking God how he might have you leverage your time, your vocation, talents and resources in benefit of those facing homelessness.
Remember to protect yourself — be cautious when talking to street people. Stay in areas where other people can see you. Remove yourself if there is any sign of hostility. Ultimately, encourage those you encounter to get help through respected homeless shelters or outreach programs. One of the best ways to help is to give the person a card to call 2-1-1’s Homeless Helpline: 954-563-HELP (4357), connecting them to available community resources.
Edwin Copeland serves as the Vice President of Community Engagement for HOPE South Florida. Edwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.