Cain said to his brother Abel, “Let’s go out to the field.” While they were in the field, Cain attacked his brother Abel and killed him.
Then the Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” And he replied, “I don’t know! Am I my brother’s guardian?” But the Lord said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! So now, you are banished from the ground, which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. When you try to cultivate the ground it will no longer yield its best for you. You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth.”
Then Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is too great to endure! Look! You are driving me off the land today, and I must hide from your presence. I will be a homeless wanderer on the earth; whoever finds me will kill me.”Genesis 4:8-14 (NET)
- The Problem
- Types of Homelessness
- A Change of Focus
- Opened Eyes May Result in Opened Hearts
- When Helping Isn’t Helping
- Findy Balance as a Believer
Homelessness is a condition of human society that defiles the very nature of humanity. A basic “sense of place” in the world is an essential component to finding spiritual and emotional wholeness.1 When an individual falls into homelessness, he is often deprived of any opportunity to meet the physical needs most members of our society consider necessary for life; he is deprived of the social resources necessary for ongoing emotional growth; he lacks access to health care and educational opportunities, falling more and more behind in a world characterized by exponential change. Perhaps most damaging, though, is the loss of this sense of place. With nowhere to belong, nowhere to contribute, nowhere to love and be loved, there is no longer any existence worth hanging on to; there is no longer any reason to hope.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
When a person reaches this point in life, the human race has failed to live up to its calling. Where physical needs are not met, there is a lack of benevolence; where mental needs are not met, there is a lack of understanding; where emotional needs are not met, there is a lack of compassion. But where the need to belong is no longer met — when there is no longer any possible way to identify one’s sense of place in the world — there is a lack of community; there is a lack of fellowship; there is an absence of humanity.
Homelessness affects us all. While homelessness exists, human society is crippled. Helping people find their place in a world that has told them they don’t belong is not an easy task. It is a problem that has eluded a solution for thousands of years — since that first man was ostracized from his family and forced to flee his home.2 The situation he found himself in was the result of a crime of his own doing, but that doesn’t negate the tragedy of his circumstances, or the precedent it set for the people who would follow.
Homelessness is a longstanding problem, but it is not a problem without a solution. It does not have to remain an incurable evil — a sickness to be nursed, but never healed. The issues of homelessness are daunting, but they are not unconquerable. The solution to homelessness simply involves healthy doses of the things left void in the homeless man’s existence — compassion, generosity, understanding, patience, fellowship and, most of all, a heaping amount of humanity, shared in equal portions by many people bound together in community.
The problem of homelessness has plagued the human race nearly since its inception, but it need not exist beyond the current generation. The time to end homelessness is now.
While unique sets of circumstances move each and every individual through life, people who find themselves living in a state of homelessness can generally be grouped into two categories: situationally homeless, or chronically homeless.3 An individual may end up in a state of situational homelessness as a result of a job loss, a severe illness, a divorce or bankruptcy. A situationally homeless individual may live with friends or relatives for a period of time until she is able to move out of homelessness and back into suitable housing. A situationally homeless individual may spend several weeks, or months, in a shelter, or even living on the street, until the resources are in place for her to transition back into a stable situation. Unemployment insurance, workers compensation, disability benefits, Social Security, savings accounts and temporary assistance from other government agencies, nonprofit organizations and churches often provide a safety net to help people living in situational homelessness get back on their feet. If these resources are not available, or if they have been exhausted over a period of time, then the individual is at risk to fall into a cycle of chronic homelessness.
Chronic homelessness can be used to describe someone who has been perpetually homeless for more than a few months, or as someone who regularly moves in and out of situational homelessness over a period of several years. In the United States, the chronically homeless individuals are typically only around 10 percent of the total population using shelter resources over the course of a year, but these individuals consume more than half of shelter resources.4 Among homeless individuals in Wake County, 19 percent are considered to be chronically homeless — almost twice the national average.5
Providing comprehensive services and resources to aid people in situational homelessness as they seek to regain stability in their lives is a critical and ongoing step in the effort to end homelessness. The challenges of chronic homelessness are far more daunting, but not insurmountable. Taking measures to end chronic homelessness in our society will free up tremendous amounts of resources that can be used to strengthen and expand the safety net of services necessary for supporting those in situational homelessness, ultimately reducing the amount of time anyone spends living on the street.
Across all barriers of time, space and culture, pervasive poverty and homelessness have always been problems in human societies. Like illness, heartache and corruption, homelessness has largely been viewed as an inevitable part of life — no matter what people do, or what measures are in place, homelessness will occur. Indeed, the circumstances that lead to situational homelessness may very well be unavoidable, but the social progress of the 20th century has demonstrated that if adequate resources are in place and if people have access to those resources, situational homelessness may be rectified before a person moves into chronic homelessness. We still have a long way to go before sufficient resources are made available to everyone who has a need, but building a functional safety net of social services is clearly a feasible goal.
Once a person has shifted into chronic homelessness, the hurdles to overcome are much more worrisome — health issues can become serious obstacles as lack of care exacerbates conditions; marketable skills decline as individuals are unable to stay abreast of changes in the workforce; an ever-increasing record of street life (time elapsed while unemployed, possible criminal records, black listed from banks for overdue accounts, etc.) serves to weigh him down, adding to the hopelessness of the situation and making it more and more difficult to escape with each passing day. These complex issues make the chronically homeless appear to be beyond hope, but the simple truth is, they are not. With the proper support network in place, nearly every individual living in a state of chronic homelessness can improve their situation and move off of the streets into a stable environment. If attention is given to moving the chronically homeless off of the streets, while the network of social services designed to prevent more people from falling into a cycle of homelessness is simultaneously expanded and improved, the number of truly homeless people living in our midst can be dramatically reduced. As these steps are being implemented, low-cost housing and shelter resources must also be expanded as a final solution to provide housing for those who inevitably fall through the safety net of social services. Even then, though, they will no longer be living on the street — once the chronically homeless population has been so drastically reduced, shelters could meet the immediate needs of everyone who has nowhere else to turn, and no one has to spend the night sleeping in the city park. No one has to live apart.
Expanding and broadening these resources is not a simple task, but it is the logical move to take to reduce, and even eliminate homelessness. More importantly, it is a move we can take as a society. In the United States, and specifically, in Wake County, it is a move that is fiscally responsible.
In contrast, putting someone with a mental illness in a stable living environment where he can receive proper treatment cost only $33.43 per day, or about $1,000 per month; providing an individual with a Section 8 voucher to rent a one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh costs only $701.7
A homeless person in the United States becomes a tremendous user of public resources, including emergency rooms, police, fire, public defenders, shelters, social services and more. It is not unusual for government to spend between $35,000 to $150,000 per year on such services for a single individual — while $13,000 to $25,000, properly managed, could be spent to provide supportive housing, stability and self-respect for a person, creating a positive trajectory in his life as he moves out of homelessness and back into mainstream society.8
Allocating more resources and more energy towards a problem most people would just assume forget about is not an easy next step, but it is the responsible next step, and the only one that honors our shared humanity.
This paper will not begin to focus on the complex planning and near-infinite technical details to be worked out in order for the effort to end homeless to move forward. What I do want to focus on, however, is the shift in focus that working towards such an effort brings. Until we understand that homelessness is not an inevitable part of human society, we cannot begin working to end it. However difficult it may be, it should be clear to anyone today that it will be, and indeed is, possible for our society to completely eliminate homelessness as it exists today, just as we eliminated polio and tuberculosis from North America — every now and then, the disease manifests itself in a handful of people, but there are many, many strong safety nets in place to identify the virus early on, arrest its development and provide ongoing care to the patient who needs it; for the rest of society, the virus’ existence is still completely unknown, and its deadly effects have been made negligible.
“For 20 years, we gave ourselves to managing homelessness. If you think you can’t abolish a wrong, you tend to manage it,” said Philip Mangano, former director of the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness. “We’ve learned that if good intentions could end homelessness, it would have been history decades ago. We need to get beyond the notion that we cannot abolish this social wrong. Our intent now is to end homelessness.”9
Mangano served on the Council from 2002 to 2009, pushing for an increase in rapid re-housing among nonprofits and government agencies that serve the homeless. Rapid re-housing strategy adheres to the concept that the sooner people can be put into stable housing, the sooner their problems of addiction, of mental illness, of social and educational impairments can be addressed and they can begin a journey towards self sufficiency. People who are chronically homeless must have a safe, stable environment to live in before these issues can be addressed, and people who are situationally homeless need to be put back into housing as quickly as possible, before they begin sliding into a cycle of chronic homelessness themselves.
“We changed the equation of homelessness. We used to think that people had to earn the right to go into housing, when they finally got to a certain level of moral goodness, a certain level of sobriety,” Mangano said. “Let’s get people into housing, the central antidote to homelessness, just as quickly as possible. Then, in the stability and security of that place to live, let’s deliver services.”10
The Federal Government puts a priority on housing individuals with disabilities who have been living in long-term homelessness.11 In Wake County, CASA, an independent, nonprofit housing agency created by county commissioners to address the lack of affordable housing, shares the same emphasis.
Rapid re-housing becomes more and more difficult as affordable housing in all forms is becoming more and more scarce. Housing is considered affordable if no more than 30 percent of a family’s income is spent on housing costs, including rent or mortgage payments, utilities and insurance. For a family making $3,000 each month, no more than $900 should be spent on housing; for a worker earning minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) working full-time and not taking a vacation during the year, no more than $377 should be spent on housing and utilities combined. In normal circumstances, one cannot find adequate housing — housing alone, not including electricity, water and other utilities — priced at this level in the United States.
Workers can turn to the Section 8 voucher system to provide assistance, but first-time applicants must wait an average of 20 months to become certifiably eligible for Section 8 housing. Once they are certified, they may apply for a voucher, but the application process can take up to 22 months. With a voucher in hand, a family or individual may approach a landlord who accepts the vouchers and apply for housing, but most developments have an average 16-month waiting period before a unit becomes available. A person working full-time, meeting all deadlines to move through the process as quickly as possible ends up waiting nearly five years before he can step into stable housing12 — five years of living at high risk for falling into a trap of chronic homelessness, where he will begin costing our justice and social service system far more than the $701 per month a housing voucher represents.
In Wake County, the affordability gap has spread to nearly 25,000 units13 — that is, 25,000 families are not able to pay for stable housing, not because they are not working, but because it does not exist.
Combating the problems of homelessness and affordable housing may be easier for mainstream society to wrestle with as sustainable development movements such as New Urbanism continue to take hold in progressive communities across the world, so long as the church, or some other advocate for the homeless, make it a point to emphasize the role of affordable housing in any discussions about sustainable development.
In recent years, incredible emphasis has been put on building communities with the future in mind. For the later half of the 20th century, community development practices largely followed an approach of:
- Build it. Whether it is a new neighborhood, a shopping center or a church sanctuary, just build it.
- Use it, work in it, live in it until it is no longer in style, or until traffic to the area is no longer as high as it once was, or until the demographics of the neighborhood have changed from what we had originally envisioned.
- Abandon it.
- Re-build it two miles down the road.
New Urbanism rejects this wasteful approach to development. It emphasizes building with longevity in mind, designing sustainable communities that will be functional and aesthetically pleasing well into the future, growing and changing as the people who live and work in them grow and change. Does it not follow that building sustainable communities means planning on how to deal with housing crises that will inevitably arise? Willis Jenkins, a professor at Yale Divinity School, says homeless individuals — along with church leaders and other advocates — should be included in the planning processes for new communities, especially in light of the New Urbanism movement.
Were church leaders or outreach workers involved in the planners’ charrette process, they might think to ask: Where can we build emergency shelter? How can we integrate successful transitional housing into neighborhood life?
Were persons without shelter involved, they might ask still better questions: Where are the warm places? The safe places? Are there single-resident occupancy apartments or weekly hotel rooms? What sort of people live in this kind of neighborhood? Are they generous? Patient? Can I talk to people on the streets? What will they expect in return for letting me sit on a bench? For a bed at the shelter? Where do they draw the line — with the mentally ill? Addicts? Alcoholics? Registered sex offenders? Ex-convicts? Undocumented immigrants? The ungrateful? The violent?14
Jenkins suggests that part of the reason why New Urbanism is not as quick to embrace homelessness and housing issues is because it has displaced itself from the church. In traditional community designs, the church was at the center of all things. Twentieth century neighborhood planning excluded the church, just as it excluded mixed-use development, micro-enterprises and sustainability. New Urbanism has embraced these other classic elements of community, with the exception of the church. Parks and green spaces are the center of life in neighborhoods built on New Urbanism, not the church.15
The problem is two-fold, though. Churches can easily choose to become disengaged from their neighborhoods and fail to live up to their own potential as the spiritual and communal centers of the neighborhood. New Urbanism and other similar movements provide fertile ground for these wrongs to be righted, for the church to move back into the center of the life of the community and for long-term solutions to housing and homelessness to be tackled head on.
Perhaps the longest standing hurdle to ending homelessness stems, often unintentionally, from the homeless themselves. Compassionate people have been present in all generations, and have sought to help the downtrodden around them. But what are good-intentioned people to do when the very people they are trying to help don’t seem willing to help themselves? What can the church do when shelter is offered, and those with nowhere to sleep choose to remain in the park? What can society do when all of the resources are made available, and no one seems to be using them as intended? This is the question that has plagued the would-be helpers for centuries; it is a question we may be ready to answer.
Brad Hill tells a story of his encounter with a homeless man camping out on an empty lot that belonged to the first church he served as pastor. The man, Mac, was found to be living in an old steeple the church had taken down and discarded on the lot some years before Hill arrived. The pastor was first made aware of the situation when mothers from the church daycare expressed concerns about “the man on the steeple.”16
Hill went to talk to Mac, who was sitting perched on top of the steeple taking in the morning air. Mac smiled and jumped down when the pastor approached. His story was not uncommon. He had setup a fairly complete camp on the property, but the pastor told him that he could not live there. He offered to take Mac to the shelter and get him some help, at which point, Mac became confrontational. Mac explained how he hated the shelters and the mission downtown. He stepped closer to the pastor and declared, “This place is just fine. I am not leaving.” Several more confrontations followed, and eventually the police were called to take Mac away from the church.17
Confronted with a person who does not want to take advantage of the usual resources for assistance, even when they are available and abundant, puts many good-intentioned people at a loss. Unfortunately, Hill’s encounter is not an anomaly. In retrospect, he is able to look back and see where better communication may have allowed the situation to end differently.18
Homeless shelters, rescue missions, social service agencies, and even placement housing in subsidized apartments, can be intimidating places for someone who has spent years living in relative isolation to mainstream society — as well as for those who have never removed the blinders that same society attaches to its long-time members. Not all people in need of services will be able to admit, or even to recognize, that they are afraid and intimidated by shelters and service agencies, but their uneasiness can certainly be perceived.
“The apparent social victory of getting someone from the street into an apartment might be experienced by that person as capitulating to the cultural habit of occupying an enclosed box, set in a larger box of suspicious strangers, situated indifferently to a street on which the person has no business,” Jenkins says. “Without a neighboring habitat, the spatial therapy may be experienced as a worse form of homelessness — as a loss of one’s freedom and skills, as a kind of incarceration.”19
Simply correcting the physical symptoms of homelessness is not enough. Creating a home, helping someone to reestablish a sense of place, involves building relationships and fostering an atmosphere of community. As Christians seeking to improve the lives of these individuals, this important element must never be neglected. It is what has the power to restore the lost pieces of humanity that homelessness destroys. It must often come before other services can be rendered. It must move simultaneously with any effort to put a person into housing, even when using a rapid re-housing strategy.
Sometimes helping people learn to walk through the healing process takes a long-term commitment. Overcoming one’s fears is not easily done until those fears can be identified, and years of living without healthy relationships and normal social interactions make it hard for a chronically homeless individual to know how to interpret even the most basic encounters he may have with a service provider.
Craig Rennebohm demonstrates just how this long-term healing process can play out in his book, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God. Rennebohm describes Jerry as a man with little or no ability to maintain healthy social relationships. On good days, Jerry will go into the service center to accept a free meal. On bad days, he is aggressive and confrontational with anyone who comes near him, whether it is a friend, a service provider or a stranger on the street. Most days he just keeps to himself and walks the city. When Rennebohm first met Jerry, it was impossible to speak to him about his past, about his present situation or about getting help for the future. For months, all the pastor could do was walk beside Jerry as the homeless man lead the way through the streets of Seattle. Without words, the two men slowly began to build a relationship as Jerry grew accustomed to Rennebohm presence. From this point, the two were able to exchange short sentences in conversation. Eventually, Jerry scribbled out some of the details of his past life to share with Rennebohm. Over the course of seven years, Rennebohm was able to help Jerry get some of the assistance and treatment he needed to begin functioning at a normal level again.20
Helping people recover a sense of place, a sense of their lost humanity, is often much more difficult than providing a meal and a temporary shelter. But, as stated earlier, the loss of humanity, the loss of relationships and fellowship, is the real crisis of homelessness — the one that affects us all.
As Christians, we called to do more than simply build neighborhoods that are nice places to live. We are called to do more than to move the homeless in off of the street. We are called to do more than serve a few hundred bowls of hot soup to those who need it most. We are called to meet the needs of those around us, but we must never lose sight of the whole person we are trying to serve. We must meet his physical needs, his educational needs, his emotional needs, his need for fellowship, his need for spiritual growth, and his need to contribute back to us. We must have the grace to accept the friendship of those we minister to just as we hope they will accept the gifts we offer them. This ministry to the whole person is described throughout the New Testament, in the teachings and example of Jesus, as well as in the Epistles of Paul. Yet Christians today seem to be torn on exactly how our faith fits into our ministry.
In trying to understand the role that the Spirit of God plays in social ministry, I can think of three common perspectives held by Christians today. The first is the role of the Spirit as a social conscience. The Spirit is what inspires men and women to take up social ministry. Christians serve the poor and meet the needs of the homeless because it is what God has called them to do. God does not act in the world through supernatural power (and why should he, he spent so much time on the natural system, it would be petty to disregard it), but through the Spirit that inspires people to act on his behalf. We are the hands and feet of Christ. When we humble ourselves and obey the guidance of the Spirit, we become the answers to one another’s prayers. This is the primary understanding of the social gospel that has effected much positive change in the past century, and it is good.
The second role the Spirit may play in social ministry is to effect actual change in a person’s life. The record of the early church experience contains supernatural encounters with angels, divine protection and real needs being met directly by the hand of God. This is an approach to social ministry that is still alive and well today. Many people desiring to make a difference in the life of the homeless begin by telling the individuals they seek to serve about their faith, about Jesus and about his power to transform their lives. The social minister’s work is to preach the gospel, to provide spiritual care and nurturing. If the homeless individual accepts this gospel and earnestly seeks after God, the Spirit will take care of the rest; there is no need for the human minister to worry with the physical circumstances of others. God is in control, and his will always comes to fruition.
The third role the Spirit may take in social ministry is providing hope and encouragement to the one in need. In my experience, many people living in chronic homelessness profess to be people of strong faith. Their optimism and benevolent spirit is an encouragement to others, even before it is contrasted against the dire situations they are living in. John Belcher argues that this hopefulness brought on by faith is a key movement of the Holy Spirit in social ministry. People who quickly move from situational homelessness into chronic homelessness are often those who had already lost their sense of connectedness and hope; they had lost their faith.21
These three movements of the Spirit need not be exclusive. Just as every individual’s needs and experiences are unique, so is the way God makes himself known in each individual’s life. Acknowledging Christ’s call to meet the needs of the poor and downtrodden without any pretenses does not negate our faith in God to enact real change in a person’s life. Honoring the faith and hope that has nourished the soul of a homeless person during days when no other bread was available does not mean we do not have a responsibility to offer her spiritual and emotional care alongside our efforts to meet her physical needs, or that we can’t receive strength from her faith in return.
Since the beginning, humans were intended to live in community with one another. Homelessness does more than wear down the bodies of the poor folks who sleep outside. It kills a little bit of the humanity that longs to live in each of us. So long as homelessness exists in our midst, we are falling short of the fellowship Christ has called us to. The challenges are many and longstanding, but the victory is sweet indeed. The time to end homelessness is now. Let us act, together.
1. Richard J. Foster, Study Guide for Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1983), 3.
2. Genesis 4:8-12
3. Adapted from Bill Ehlig and Ruby K. Payne, What Every Church Member Should Know About Poverty (Highlands, Texas: aha! Process, 2005), 4.
4. Ending Homelessness: The 10-year Action Plan, by the City of Raleigh, Wake County, Wake Continuum of Care and Triangle United Way. (Raleigh, N.C.: February 24, 2005), 4.
6. Ending Homelessness, 8.
7. Ibid, 1.
8. David Neff, “Abolishing Homelessness in Ten Years,” Christianity Today 53, no. 5, (May 2009): 53.
9. David Neff, 52.
10. David Neff, 53.
12. Deann Lancashire, “Addressing the Housing Crisis,” Congregations 28, no. 4, (July/August 2002): 7.
13. Ending Homelessness, 19.
14. Willis Jenkins, “Neighborhood Ethics: Christianity, Urbanism, and Homelessness,” Anglican Theological Review 91, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 554.
16. Brad Hill, “Stranger on the Steeple,” Christian Century 125, no. 3 (February 12, 2008), 10.
18. Brad Hill, 11.
19. Willis Jenkins, 555-556.
20. Craig Rennebohm and David Paul, Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, (Boston: Beacon Press, 2008), 19-28.
21. John R. Belcher, “Helping the Homeless: What About the Spirit of God?” Pastoral Psychology 51, no. 3 (January 2003), 182.
22. Ibid, 184.