It was a cold, dark night in January 2009. I had been invited to observe a food kitchen in Derby with a view to taking it on. I had previously worked in youth work for over 15 years and had no experience of the homeless community of my city, and to be honest had no desire to either! But as I crossed over the threshold of that church hall, into a setting where people were being fed, clothed and spoken to, something stirred in my spirit and God began a transformation in me to ‘ruin me’ for the marginalised and outcasts of our society.
I share that story, as you may be reading this thinking, ‘I have never worked with this community, I am not sure if I want to work with this community, it scares me to think of working with homeless people.’ I was exactly that person, but I ask you to read with an open mind and allow God to speak, stir and nudge you, to see if this is an area He wants you in.
There are many Scriptures that suggest it is our calling, duty, responsibility (whatever you want to call it) as believers and followers of Jesus to care for the poor, of which the homeless are part. But one Scripture in particular resonates with me: ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40). We are called to make a difference and to help where we can. That is our calling and that is all I try to do.
Basic principles working with the homeless
We may not all move into full-time ministry or work with the homeless, but there are some basic things we can all be doing in our day-to-day life should we come across someone who is homeless:
Many people see homeless people on the streets, sleeping rough or begging, and don’t know what to do, so like the Priest and the Levite in Luke 10, they pass by on the other side and ignore the need. But to simply acknowledge them, to say hello, to make eye contact, to treat them as a fellow human being can go a long way for that person.
Don’t give money!
Sadly, many people who are asking for money aren’t going to spend it on what they tell you they are going to spend it on: the last bit of money to catch the bus home; a B&B for the night; something to eat or drink! But instead a lot of the time it is to feed their addictions, sadly. By all means offer to buy them food, drink or something else they are asking for, but not the money. I remember a young lad who asked me for money for a bus ticket to the next town about 20 minutes down the road. He just needed that bit more money to catch the bus, he told me. Having worked with this community for many years I discerned he wanted the money for his addiction. I offered to walk him to the bus station and put him on the bus and pay for the whole ticket, because I thought if this lad was genuine he would accept this offer. But during the 10 minute walk to the bus station he repeatedly told me he didn’t want to put me out, and I could just give him the extra £1.50 he needed to catch the bus. I insisted I wanted to help, and so this back and forth continued for the journey. I still remember his face, as the bus pulled off destined for this other town, as he couldn’t bring himself to be honest with me, and realised he was going to be stuck somewhere else and still without the substances he craved!
This is the biggest sacrifice we can make for anyone, and for us to show this community of people we care, and want to show them the love of Christ, we need to make time! Time on the way to work, to stop and say hello and ask how we can help; time to be in for the long haul and journey with someone, as escaping homelessness is never an easy process.
Remember there is only one Saviour!
Many people who work with the homeless start out thinking they are going to be the one to save people and sort them out. But in my experience if we have this mentality we quickly get burned out and disillusioned. We need to understand that the homeless don’t usually have one issue that needs resolving (for example, a home), but numerous things they need to work through (debt, benefits, addictions, somewhere to stay, and also a place they can call home).
What could my church do for the homeless?
Lots of people and churches ask me how they could start a ministry for the homeless. My big advice is start small! Don’t run before you can walk. So how about a drop-in? Just agree a couple of hours each week, or if that’s too much, once a fortnight. Start off by just offering tea and coffee and biscuits. It isn’t really about the food or drink, but more about the space to talk, to offer prayer, to listen and support. Then over time it can build as you have resources, volunteers and vision.
We have found that sometimes one church doesn’t have all the volunteers or capability, so a powerful witness is a collaborative partnership with other churches to resource what you are wanting to do. We have also supported churches to run soup kitchens and night shelters. Nothing is beyond possibility if you have vision and passion to drive it.
Finally, prayer! To pray for the homeless, to get to know them in your area and find out their needs can be a powerful support, showing we care as God’s people.