Compassion, responsibility, opportunity, choices … while I drove I listened to a program that was discussing homelessness in America. I heard about solutions that had unintended consequences. Some suggested stricter laws, others wanted to pour more money into building houses. Others said the answer was institutionalizing more people. But, each answer was incomplete. Just providing more housing leaves issues of mental health unaddressed. Just saying that we need to compel those who are mentally incompetent to be institutionalized ignores economic inequality that drives some to the streets. To suggest that it is all about drug and/or alcohol abuse ignores the realities of the truly poor.
Who among us has not, at one time or another, saw a homeless person and thought, “Oh, those kind of people…” while we formulated some reason that they, not us, are in that situation. Whatever the reason, we can rationalize that it is their fault, thus not our problem. But, it is! That person sleeping in their car, trying to find a place to clean up every morning could have encountered a storm of illness, job loss, and being without extended family, been overwhelmed. In so many cases that one final incident starts a steep, quick, spiral downward. A significant percentage of families in America live without a financial reserve. Just a few things going wrong at the same time could push them into homelessness. Without friends or family, they too, would be looking for shelter.
It is true that America shuttered many institutions over the last 40 years, changed laws about those who struggle with competence, which created a flood of people who are living shelter to shelter, in abandoned buildings, or just on the streets. They can be hard to reach, with a constellation of dysfunctional behaviors that defy every attempt to create a stable life, but these are not ‘throw away’ people.
Real solutions will require diverse strategies; involve individuals who care, government agencies that coordinate efforts, and churches who are active in rebuilding our social contract.
Christian, think about this. Proverbs declares: “The poor are despised even by their neighbors, while the rich have many “friends.” It is sin to despise one’s neighbors; blessed are those who help the poor.” (Proverbs 14:20-21, NLT) The homeless – whether they are the family whose luck just ran out, the veteran who is gripped by PTSD, the addict, or the mentally ill – are our brothers and our sisters, people God loves, worthy of being treated with dignity.
As I reflected on this, I came to realize anew that we must not just see those living on the streets as a project or a problem. They are people – complex beings just like you and me – who need to know that they are seen, that we regard them as people who matter to us, to God. The Bible is full of instruction about loving the poor. As stark as the OT law can be, in my Exodus readings, I see a thread of concern, of fairness, of justice. For example, a creditor could not hold a man’s coat, given as security for a loan, overnight. Farmers were instructed to leave the harvest in the corners of their fields so the poor could go out and glean for themselves. There was a complex system for returning a family’s land to them in 50 year cycles to prevent perpetual poverty. Those examples teach us to care and to be active in our engagement.
The New Testament is even more clear – “Suppose you see a brother or sister who needs food or clothing, and you say, “Well, good-bye and God bless you; stay warm and eat well”—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do? So you see, it isn’t enough just to have faith. Faith that doesn’t show itself by good deeds is no faith at all—it is dead and useless.” (James 2:15-17, NLT) Our Sunday songs and sermons don’t mean much if we close our eyes to the needy on Monday.
Real change won’t happen in a month or a year. Poverty is not something we cure and forget about. Compassion compels us. Will we think about this, pray over this, engage ourselves with this, and become a small catalyst for change be it feeding the hungry, strengthening families, teaching financial responsibility to our children, or whatever else God calls us to do?
The word from the Word may hit us like a slap in the face. “Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.” (James 1:26-27, The Message)
God, lead us to love.
Preserve us from ignoring the need,
From soft-headed emotional ‘solutions’ that do nothing to really help,
From hard-hearted ‘solutions’ that hurt the suffering,
From empty symbolic gestures that do nothing but salve our conscience.
Help us to care enough to give ourselves,
To risk failure and rejection,
To love like Jesus. Amen.