One is too many: How to help people who are homeless
According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on a single night in January of 2014, at least 500,000 people in the United States were homeless. While the number of Americans sleeping on the streets or in shelters continues to decrease slowly, the problem isn’t going away. And the answer is much more complex than providing a warm bed and a hot meal. The ultimate goal is to help homeless individuals move towards self-reliance, permanent housing and independent living.
What does it mean to be homeless?
By the most basic definition, people are considered homeless only if they are sleeping in a charitable shelter or in an area not designed for human habitation, such as under a bridge. Expanded definitions include people who have been displaced from their homes and who may be sharing temporary shelter with family or friends. While the numbers of those defined by the first parameters have decreased, the numbers in the second group seem to be increasing.
In one sense, this is good. It indicates that more communities are doing a better job of helping people get off the street. However, it also indicates that the work yet to be done. Not only are thousands of Americans still without roofs, many, many more who are living in temporary, unsustainable housing situations. And while the majority of homeless individuals are men, there are plenty of women and children among the numbers. How can the church help?
First, do your research
Contact local government agencies, non-church related charitable organizations and even other churches to get a better idea of the demographics in your community for those who are homeless. This will help you more readily determine what kind of help is needed. For example, Fairwood Community United Methodist Church in Renton, Washington, specifically helps women and children through its REACH Center of Hope, because obviously women and children (especially those escaping an abusive relationship) will have very different needs than homeless veterans. Ask lots of questions. Take notes. Gather numbers. The more information you have, the better equipped you will be to make a difference.
Second, determine what is already being done
Know what help is available for people who can’t pay the bills. Find out what resources are already available in your community to help those who are struggling or homeless. Collect information about the local, state and national resources (such as HUD.gov and HHS.gov), and post it throughout your church, especially in office areas. Include numbers and information for food pantries, shelters, medical clinics, welfare agencies, social services, libraries with free computer labs or tax help, etc. The more comprehensive the list, the better equipped you will be to point people in the right direction. Make sure that everyone knows how and where to direct homeless individuals for help.
Look closely at what your church is currently doing or has done in the past in order to determine if any ministries should be added — or subtracted. Ask yourself:
- What, if any, needs are being unmet?
- Can the church offer a way to help that is not currently available?
- How can the church help solve the problem at hand?
The answers to these questions may lead to the creation of a new ministry. Often, you will find that someone else is already tackling the problem. If that’s the case, consider how members of your church can partner with existing organizations.
For example, Arch Street United Methodist Church in Philadelphia helped people who are homeless by collaborating with the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit of Philadelphia. Together they not only provide temporary housing, but also give student volunteers an opportunity to learn how to advocate for the needs of homeless people.
Fourth, do something
- Pair up with a local shelter to provide extra housing on nights when there aren’t enough beds, possibly rotating with other churches or organizations.
- Encourage volunteers to help organizations who build houses for those who are homeless.
- Ask Sunday school classes or other small groups to team up with meal providers in the community.
- Take a cue from Ebenezer United Methodist Church in Stafford, Virginia. Volunteers there sign up for housekeeping duties at a local shelter.
- Donate space to organizations to host alcohol- or drug-abuse support group meetings, DivorceCare, job fairs, ESL classes or career development seminars.
- Sponsor a large pantry-stocking Sunday where congregants bring in canned goods and other food items to help stock community pantries.
- Maintain a list of professionals within your church who are willing to donate their services to those in need.
- Remember that part of combatting homelessness is helping people maintain a home. Recruit volunteers who are willing to mow lawns or help with home repairs.
- Pair volunteers with individuals who need assistance preparing resumes, finding appropriate clothing, applying for jobs and preparing for interviews.
- Provide transportation to help take people to job interviews, medical appointments, shopping trips or searches for housing, or provide public transportation coupons or tokens to help pay their way.
- Provide free pre-paid phones or phone service cards to help homeless individuals stay in contact with potential employers.
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Providing assistance to homeless individuals is not about creating an opportunity for church members to feel good about themselves. It’s not about putting a Band-Aid on the wound. And it doesn’t necessarily mean reinventing the wheel. But one homeless person is one too many. Don’t tackle the problem alone. Work together with your community and start making a difference today.
— Tricia Brown has been a freelance writer and editor for more than twenty years, ghost-writing and editing for individuals as well as for health, education and religious organizations. She enjoys reading, writing and public speaking commitments in which she teaches and encourages other women.