What do the homeless really need?
What do the homeless really need?
I often visited the plaza with friends and family while growing up in Johnson County. We frequently passed a person in disheveled clothes holding out a cup and asking for money. I usually walked past them without making eye contact. After many years, I began to look at them and smile. Then, one day, I stopped and introduced myself to one of them. I bought him a sandwich and a soda, thinking these would suffice for, well, awhile.
I passed out clothes and other necessities to the homeless on the Uplift truck and delivered meals to them with a group of religious sisters in Kansas City. Nevertheless, the homeless remained the homeless. I only came in contact with them in brief conversations on a food truck. All the while, I wanted to get out of the truck and talk to them face to face. I wanted to know their stories, gifts, and sufferings. I felt an inner tug to serve them more directly and extensively. When A Simple House was discerning ministry this year, I knew I wanted to work with the homeless.
Several mornings during the week, Simple House volunteers searched for the homeless under bridges. We spotted sleeping bags, grocery carts, blankets, and cardboard boxes. Sometimes we had a hard time telling whether or not someone was under the blankets. Their “beds” were spread out so that two or three homeless could live under the same bridge while keeping their distance.
After a couple of search walks, we started yelling, “Good morning!” This is how we met Jonathan, a five-foot, curly-haired man with a heavy Spanish accent. Every morning, we would shout, “Good morning, Jonathan!”
Jonathan would roll over, see that it was us, smile, and yell, “Good morning!” We brought sodas and water to give to the poor and encourage conversation. Each morning, we offered Jonathan something different—soda, water, coffee, food. Every time, he stuck out his stomach and said, “No, I eat too much!” After several visits, we loved Jonathan and our conversations with him. However, we wondered what we could offer him. I realized later that we had been offering the wrong things.
One afternoon, we visited Jonathan and exchanged the usual greetings. Then, we stood there awkwardly, not knowing what to say. Suddenly, one of us asked, “What are you doing for dinner?”
Jonathan pointed south and yelled, “Chipotle!” We seized the opportunity.
“What time are you going?”
“Five!” Jonathan responded.
“How about we go with you?”
“No!” Jonathan hollered.
“Oh, come on,” we insisted.
I could see the wheels turning in his head. Jonathan sighed, got up, put on his hat, and descended the steep cement slope to the sidewalk. “I like your hat,” I commented.
Jonathan immediately took off his hat and handed it to me. He said, “Here, you have it.” I told him he needed it more than me, but he would have none of it. I placed the hat on my head. It was humbling to see that Jonathan had so little and yet gave so much. As we crossed the bridge over his camp, Jonathan said, “I pay.”
“No, no,” we persisted.
“No, I pay for you,” said Jonathan. “Look.” He pulled out his wallet and showed us several twenty-dollar bills. My eyes bulged. “How is it,” I wondered, “that a homeless man living under a bridge has so much money?”
I said, “No, Jonathan. You pay for you, and we will pay for us.” He agreed. We had dinner with Jonathan and were able to learn about his family and past. I asked him, “Do you want to try to find a job?”
Jonathan smiled and said, “No more work. No more work.”
After we left him that night, I kept turning the paradox of him having so much money over in my mind. I was stumped about how to help Jonathan who appeared to not need our help. I wondered why he did not want a job, why he had sacrificed family, home, and safety to live under a bridge. There was something Jonathan lacked, but I was not able to see it because it was something intangible: hope. If Jonathan had hope, he might take action and work to get off the streets.
Another one of our friends named George cemented this idea that the poor lack hope. George has been homeless for many years and suffers from a severe addiction to alcohol. After several visits with him, we could easily see that he was getting more and more ill. He has a family that wants him to come back home. He has gone home multiple times, yet he chooses to be homeless again and again. “How can we help him,” I thought, “if he does not want to stop drinking, get off the streets, and go back home?” Once again, I recognized an absence of hope, hope that would help George find meaning in his life and get back on his feet.
Jesus came to preach a message of hope because he knew that hope was exactly what the poor were missing. The homeless have a poverty of spirit, and they hunger for love like everyone else. Every time we pass by the homeless without even acknowledging them, we increase their hunger for love. Jonathan does not want food or money, and George does not want to go home. They still love to see us, though, because our love gives them hope. This is why we need to get to know the homeless and be there for them during their trials. We may leave them a water, blanket, or clothes, but we do this in the midst of a loving relationship with them. We must give them the selfless love that Jesus gave to us on the cross. Only then will we really let them know that we care; only then will we really give them hope.