Helping the Homeless: It Starts with Getting to Know Them

Last month I was part of a group of people of faith who spent a Saturday mingling with homeless persons on the streets of downtown Atlanta. Maybe you'll consider doing something similar where you live. You will likely come back home as grateful, and as surprised, as I did.

What surprised me most throughout the day was the friendliness and openness of the vast majority of the people I interacted with on the street. I had forgotten this.

When I first started working at the Day1 offices in Midtown Atlanta ten years ago, I made a habit of keeping a dollar or two in my pocket, and as I walked around the neighborhood on lunch breaks I would give a buck to a homeless person if they happened to ask me for help. This opened up conversations in some cases, and I got to know the names of a few of the "regulars" in the neighborhood.

However, in the years since, as I've heard or read various experts on homelessness inside and outside of the church, I kept hearing, "Don't give them any money, they'll only buy booze or drugs with it." So I stopped doing that. Actually, I stopped doing anything.

I realize now that, as a result, I began to avoid street people entirely because I didn't know what to do or say to them. If someone approached me directly to ask for help, I'd point them to a nearby church and quickly walk away.

Before long I had pretty much lost any connection I had with homeless people, and as a result I became fearful of them. I forgot that these were individuals just like me, though many of them suffer from physical, emotional, and psychological issues which only compound their problems.

So when I approached several people over the course of this hot Saturday in May, I was surprised by how warmly they responded, how quickly and easily it became for me to talk with them -- because they made mefeel welcome. As a result of these encounters, I want to make more of an effort to help them feel more welcome by me as well.

Many were more than willing to share their story. One was known as "Six" (he wouldn't tell us why, but according to the video of him he referred us to, produced by a street ministry, it's because of the six felony murder charges he's gotten).

Another man, Alvin (I've changed the names here), shared a great deal of knowledge of the Bible, especially the book of Genesis, as I talked with him.

Robby had come from California to Atlanta, where the cost of living is cheaper, some months ago because he'd lost his commercial driver's license after getting three tickets, and so lost his truck-driving job. He was hoping to make some money here before returning and getting his license back. He only needed about $1500, he said.

Everett told me he was from Indiana, and had been in Atlanta maybe two or three weeks. I asked him if he was a person of faith. He said, "You have to be."

And I can still see Dwayne's warm smile as he talked to me about how he was trying to make it, working pick-up jobs with a landscaper, but admitting he had a "taste for beer" and it kept getting him into trouble. He told me about being arrested one morning at 3 a.m. as he went to the BP to get a beer and was stopped by a policeman. When a white man walked by with his dog, Dwayne -- who is African-America -- asked the policeman, why didn't you ask him what he was doing? The policeman arrested him for being "smart." While we talked I offered to pray with Dwayne and he seemed grateful. He wore a rosary around his neck.

According to the Tri-Jurisdictional Homeless Census of 2009 (comprising the City of Atlanta and DeKalb and Fulton counties), there were a projected 21,441 homeless men, women, and children (though the great majority of homeless are male) in this urban area in 2009. On the particular census night in 2009, just over 7,000 sheltered and unsheltered homeless people were counted -- an increase over previous census counts in 2003, 2005, and 2007. The problem is not going away. In fact, in this economy it's continuing to worsen.

The Atlanta area has a number of shelters offering help of one kind or another, including the Gateway Center, a consortium of government agencies, nonprofits, congregations, and other organizations, and the Peachtree-Pine Shelter, operated by the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless. In addition, a number of other organizations offer assistance to the working poor, such as the Midtown Assistance Center, an interfaith effort.

Many churches routinely bring vans loaded with food, set up in a parking lot, and serve those who come until it's all gone (which doesn't take long). And twice while we were visiting with people in Hurt Park in downtown Atlanta, a car pulled up, the trunk opened, and food or drinks were passed out to whoever got to it first. Our group handed out a few peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and bottles of water.

Of course, it would be much more effective if there were a way to better coordinate all these efforts to avoid overlap and address unmet needs, but even if that were to happen it still feels as though it would be a mere drop in the bucket.

Governments at every level are cutting or even eliminating funding to a multitude of programs serving the homeless and those living in poverty. So the need is real.

But the people are real, too. In the few hours I spent downtown on that Saturday, time after time I received hospitality from a street person, welcoming me into their world, helping me catch a glimpse of their reality. They are people just like you and me.

There were uncomfortable moments, to be sure. One man sitting on a park curb became agitated and wondered out loud why white people would want to be there. "You all don't belong here," he declared.

Frankly, I could understand that man's dismay and frustration. I felt out of place. It was a humbling experience. I actually expected more responses like his, but that was the only one.

Still, he provoked a lot of thoughts. Thoughts about what we should be doing on the street to serve in Jesus' name. Thoughts about being able to let homeless people express their frustration or anger. Thoughts about what I ought to be doing personally to help those who are poor.

This is new for me. I have been involved in suburban parishes that have offered wonderful and effective ministries to the homeless and the poor -- food pantries, clothing ministries, and so forth -- and I have been glad for those ministries. But I haven't given them too much thought and I haven't been very involved.

Maybe my paradigm is shifting. Maybe my heart is warming up a bit. And I wonder, what if this sort of experience occurred more often among people of faith in every tradition?

For me it started by coming face to face with some of the real people who are trying to survive on the streets. What will it take for you?

[Originally posted on The Huffington Post Religion page, June 3, 2011.]