I’ve worked at New York City Relief, a Hope for New York affiliate that serves men and women living on the streets, for seven years now. In that time, I have talked with countless individuals struggling with homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, and every kind of physical and emotional trauma you could imagine.
But I have also been astonished by the movement of God in the lives of my neighbors who are homeless. I have learned from them and their experiences, and I have come to know and love God more fully as a result of knowing and walking alongside of those who many of us would consider “the least of these.”
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are five things I’ve learned over the last seven years about how to best love my neighbors experiencing homelessness:
1. Sometimes all you can say is “I’m sorry.”
When someone is detailing the horrors, challenges, and circumstances that have led them to a place of homelessness, sometimes there really isn’t much to say other than, “I’m sorry.”
Most homeless folks are dealing with trauma that the rest of us could hardly imagine, let alone empathize with. Yet, my experience tells me that if we have the courage to follow God into a space that we don’t understand or feel equipped to handle, there will always be others who meet us there to make up the difference.
2. Helping someone is not about a return on investment.
After seven years of doing this work with countless failures and false starts, I think the point is simply to remember that value is defined by presence, and not by productivity. With every failed attempt to help someone get off the street, we are given the opportunity to redefine how worth is ascribed.
If you think your investment is only as valuable as the return you get, you will be perpetually disappointed and you will constantly attach strings and expectations to your generosity that will drain the power out of your sacrifice. The point is that to live and love like Jesus means ascribing worth to the worthless, hope to the hopeless, and mercy to the merciless, regardless of what they do with it along the way.
3. Our homeless neighbors are not a problem to be solved.
What we think about homelessness matters. If you assume every panhandler or homeless person you see is addicted to drugs or alcohol and cannot do anything but spend their money in a self-destructive manner, you will inevitably miss the opportunity of a lifetime to engage with — and learn from — the child of God who is right in front of you.
Richard Galloway, one of the founders of New York City Relief, likes to say, “The poor are not a problem to be solved, but a portal to the heart of God.” After seven years of traveling in and out of that portal, I can absolutely affirm that there is nowhere on earth you will feel the presence of God more powerfully than when you’re talking to a new friend who sleeps every single night on a cardboard mattress.
4. Homelessness is not a state of being.
That guy you walk past on your way to work every day is a human being who is dealing with homelessness, not a homeless being. There is a difference. In our society we are way too conditioned to associate our being with our doing. We are not what we do, and the same should be remembered about our homeless neighbors.
Our society almost always considers homelessness an identity rather than a situation. This way of thinking has infected us all. We must consider the language we use and the way we talk about people in order to change the way we interact with them. As long as we think that our homeless neighbors are more “homeless” than they are “neighbors”, we will treat them like an issue to be addressed instead of person to be loved.
5. Loving our neighbors is not a cherry on top of our theological sundae.
We tell volunteers all the time that one of the main priorities of our organization is to “love the person in front of you.” We also believe that the mandate of Isaiah 58 “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them ...” is not just an add-on to our faith.
This is essential to the call of every Christian. It is a call to connect with people and point them to local resources and programs that offer food, shelter, clothing, and the chance at a new life through advocacy and rehabilitation — and to new life in and through Jesus Christ.
Josiah Haken is the VP of Outreach at New York City Relief. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. You can read more about him and his work with NYC Relief at thereliefbus-teamhaken.org/