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Pink Salt Riot // Teach Us to Love: The Homeless

This is the inaugural installment of a monthly series I am starting here on the blog called “Teach Us To Love” that goes through concrete ways you can help those in difficult situations – everything from teen moms to child cancer patients to shut-ins – through interviews with experts who really understand what people in those situations are going through and have a good sense of what would really help them. This week we are talking about helping the homeless.

A lot of people want to help others and A. don’t know what to do because they really don’t understand the situation or B. only know of options that involve giving money and may feel like that is not something their family can do for whatever reason. This series exists to help bridge the gap between people in need and those with a desire to serve and practice the corporal works of mercy.

For this article on serving the homeless I interviewed Charles Beard, a deacon candidate for the diocese of Tulsa who has been involved with the Catholic Worker movement for about four years. He and other members of Catholic Worker movement serve a weekly lunch at an apartment complex for the working poor in a Tulsa suburb and he occasionally provides short-term hospitality to the homeless in his family home. He and his family work with the poor and the homeless who are referred to them and connect them with resources and/or help them themselves.

So let’s jump right in! What do you wish people knew about homeless people?

They’re funny. I once gave a ride to a couple of young men, both about twenty. One of them said “shit” and the other said, “Duuuuude. Don’t be cussin’ around the religious dude.” Then he proceeded to say “shit.” I don’t know if he realized he was doing it or not, but we had a good laugh about it.

What are some concrete things people can do to help people in this situation?

Give a couple bucks. The fear people have is that the homeless will use the cash to buy alcohol or drugs. Maybe sometimes that’s true and you have to use common sense. But normally people are trying to eat or get to the shelter or just need something for their own dignity. We owe them that much.

Give a ride. We live in a car-centric culture. Especially if your city’s public transport isn’t great, a ride can save somehow hours of time–and calories they need.

Keep go-bags. I know someone who walks to work and keeps energy bars to give to beggars in lieu of cash. Our family has bags with toothbrushes, water bottles, toilet paper, feminine products, that sort of thing. If you’re not comfortable giving cash, those are some items homeless folks often need.

Ask names. Have you ever averted your eyes because you just don’t want to deal with a homeless person? I have. The poor deal with that constantly. A friendly face or a kind word can go a long way.

Walk around. If you’re unattached–or even if you’re not–this is a good way to see “their world.” Seeing the world through the eyes of another will help break down the condescension that we who are privileged automatically feel toward those who are not. Go in groups if that’s best. Be smart, but don’t be afraid.

Don’t be a “charity tourist.” The goal of Christian justice is not to feel good about how nice you are. The goal is to live the kingdom, which is hard–maybe impossible–on this side of the eschaton. When you do the above things, be on guard against self-congratulation.

Is there anything else that would be helpful for our readers, or any resources you can share for more information on helping those struggling with homelessness?

Don’t assume you know what the homeless need. Asking what they need is vital. 

I say this for two reasons. First, I made a mistake. My wife and I once took our kids to drop off some go-bags at an underpass where people sleep. There was a guy sleeping and I woke him up to drop off the bag. I’m a big, bearded guy, and I scared the hell out of him. I was doing a nice thing, but I wasn’t taking his needs into account.

Second, people in the New Testament time didn’t have the concept of privacy we take for granted. Families lived in one room. Neighbors lived in close proximity. This is the sort of closeness the Bible envisions in “welcoming the stranger.” We can’t show that if we can’t at least ask questions.

Some charities in my city give out “compassion cards” with directions to resources. They ask people to give that to the homeless instead of cash. This is abominable. Many homeless people, particularly the chronically homeless, have forgotten more about resources than you and I will ever know. These sorts of things assume that a form letter can take the place of real human interaction, and you can be in solidarity with those you interact with–cheek by jowl as Shakespeare said.

Thanks so much for your time Charles!

What do you do to serve the homeless? What do you think we need to be doing both as individuals and as communities to help solve the issue of homeless in our cities? Let me know in the comments!