This is a difficult blog to write. But I’m trying to take the topics that I committed to write on in order and knock them out! Why is “How can I Help” hard to write about? Because, frankly, the task seems hard, scary, and even hopeless sometimes. What do we do when this is true? Well that’s but subject of another blog (and one that I heard an excellent speech on by Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission). For now, suffice it to say that since we recognize it’s a hard problem, it is worthy of attention of the body of Christ. Since it’s a scary problem, we need to recognize that God does not call us to do more than our share. He will do the most important work… we just have to show up and do our part. Finally, since it seems like a hopeless problem at times, we have no choice but to lean back into the arms of our loving Savior and let him support the work.
Back to the question.
How can we help homeless street youth? I think the answers depend on where you live — specifically on whether you live in a large urban place or in small town — and on your temperament. Let me expand on this.
If you live in a rural area or a small town, you might think, “Oh, this is not my problem. This is an urban problem only.” However, I think you’re mistaken. According to the youth I work with, they often go to small towns. They find them hospitable and less stressful. They go to your small town to see friends, get away from the city, and to recover a bit. They hitch hike into your town, they may ride a train and jump off near your town, or they may have a friend to take them there. The drawback of a small town for them is that there are usually few organized shelters, social outreach agencies. So the homeless youth will need to depend on the kindness of individuals, either working individually or called upon from churches or agencies not really focused on homeless youth. You are critical to care for homeless youth in small towns!
If you live in an urban setting, you are going to see lots of homelessness today. There is just no way to escape it. In fact, it’s very hard not to become callous and crass toward the homeless population. You will seem them “flying signs” (begging for money) at busy intersections. You will see them “spanging” (asking for spare change) on a busy street. You may see them congregating near the city center, usually in a place where young people already hang out (e.g., a university or college). You may see them camping out in more out of the way greenbelts or parks. There are lots of social organizations on which they can depend, but they need something from you as an individual as well.
In both cases, rural and urban, homeless youth need a humanizing loving face to smile at them. You need to see the youth and acknowledge them. I think this can be easier in a rural setting sometimes. Frankly, they do not often finding loving faces in the urban environment. Even the social agencies who are there to help the homeless are not often happy to see them because of all the difficulties and troubles one faces in an urban environment. The agencies are often overrun with supplicants, the social workers are tired and emotionally drained, the range of services is severely limited after almost a decode of curtailed governmental social policies. However, these agencies provide valuable social work that the homeless simply cannot exist without… access to mental health and medical assistance, access to shelter programs, access to your tax dollars for food, shelter and education. And many agencies do provide loving faces, too! These agencies each need the support of yourself in the form of advocacy for their agencies, financial support of their work, and volunteers to help keep things fresh.
What about church organizations? You can help out through church organizations that support the homeless. I believe that church organizations are critical to the care of homeless youth. Social work alone is not enough. And this applies to urban as well as rural areas. However, the programs will be more defined in urban areas out of necessity. It is important that the faces of the church workers be loving. Whatever you are doing for the homeless youth, you must love them first to be effective.
Depending on your personal temperament, you can choose to work through a social agency or a church organization. What about individual efforts? Should you give to the youth directly? This is a very difficult question. I do not want to oversimplify it, but given people’s intense interest in this subject I feel I must say something. First, I have found only two guidelines that I can solidly stand behind… (Guideline 1) Don’t work alone on the street. Take someone with you. Always. (Guideline 2) Whatever you choose to give individually to a homeless street youth, if you can give it with a loving message of acceptance and hope, it is probably worthwhile giving it.
(Guideline 1) I don’t want you to think that all homeless street youth are dangerous. They absolutely are not as a whole. However, they are programmed for survival. They do odd things. Things they later regret. They can overreact to things to which we are not well attuned (e.g., physical threatening body language that might seem normal among your friends, hearing things literally in ways you do not, hearing things in terms of their past experiences which you obviously don’t share, hearing and thinking about time differently than you do). However, if you work in pairs, you are very unlikely to get into trouble if you confine your work to agencies, churches, and public places where there are people around. I work with people who have done street work for 20 years or more, and we all agree: don’t work alone.
(Guideline 2) You will hear and be encouraged not to give money to homeless people. However, I must say that they could not survive without money, and they often have no legitimate access to money. It’s that simple. When you give something to a homeless person… anything…, it can always be converted to cash. (A bus ticket can be sold to a commuter for 1/2 price. A meal can be swapped around the corner for a couple of bucks to someone who wants the meal more.) And cash can be turned into alcohol, drugs, and other hurtful things. This is a fact and one we have to accept if we want to work with most homeless youth. However, I contend that if we give our gift with a message of love and hope, it is worth the risk.
I confess that I rarely give out cash. This fact is understandable to many of those youth I work with but is a source of confusion for other among them. They say, “If I truly love them and want to take care of them, why would I not give them money?” It is a good question. I allow God to show me those occasions when it seems to be OK. On those rare occasions when I am able to give out cash with a message of love and hope, I am convinced it is no worse than giving out of sandwiches. (Flame suit on… I know this is controversial, and I myself can rarely bring myself to give cash… I believe it is because I find it hard to deliver the message of love with the cash.) However, if I were to give out cash by tossing it in a box without looking at the person and without telling them I’m sorry that I’m not able to help them in more specific ways, I have dehumanized both of us and this is not love. I look like an ATM to them, and they look like… well… I don’t even want to write it down. But I don’t think they look like a neighbor whom I love and want to care for. So what do I give? I give out socks. I give out bus passes. I give time spent with them listening. I give time spend tutoring them in pre-algebra so they can pass a test. It rarely seems like enough, but I have to remember that I can only do my part. God it bigger than the problem and I have to trust it to Him.
We must give love first. And to do that, we have to truly love them as they are. They are not perfect. They are not going to change so that we can love them. They are not going to stop living on the street, stop drinking, stop using, start believing so that we will love them. We have to love them first. Then we are freed to look for ways we can help.