“Excuse me, miss, do you have any spare change?”
The other day, I was asked for some money by a man sitting outside the local supermarket. He was wrapped up in a blanket, with his hoodie over his head and a torn paper cup in his hand.
“Really sorry, I don’t have any on me,” I replied. “But can I buy something for you? What do you need?”
I squatted down beside him and looked him in the eyes, and I could tell it made him a bit nervous.
He appeared timid but I could tell was also eager to have a chat.
“My name is Rachel,” I said reaching out my hand. “What’s yours?”
As someone who works for a homelessness charity, I frequently get asked what one should do if approached by a homeless person on the streets.
What do I do if a homeless person asks me for money? Do I give them money? Should I just avoid them?
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, homelessness is a crisis. The reasons are many and complex—family breakdown, community upheaval, poor mental health, or individual struggles with addiction. But whatever the reasons, no one should have to sleep rough on the streets—especially in the dead of winter—or be in search of a place to stay because they were kicked out of their home by a family member.
Because local governments are often unable to help the hundreds of people in need, I strongly believe that this is where we, the Church, come in.
In Matthew 25:40, Jesus urges us to care for those living in poverty as an act of obedience to God: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
While I do not have all the answers to this complex problem, I do have a few thoughts that I hope you find helpful the next time you encounter someone on the streets.
1. Be compassionate
Embody compassion. Freely give to people you come across, especially those who find themselves on the margins of society. While we should not lightly cross personal boundaries or put ourselves at risk, we certainly don’t need to be a social worker to show compassion. Showing compassion can be anything from saying hello to someone on the street, to offering to buy them a hot drink on a cold night.
As Christians, kindness should come naturally to us. And when it does not, we need to ask God to show us how He sees and loves the people around us. Pray for our hearts to be broken by the things that break His heart.
2. Help out when you can and where you can
After all, you and I are mere individuals. We cannot possibly help everyone we come across who begs for money on the street.
However, if we want to help people living in poverty and experiencing episodes of homelessness, we can always start small and see where it takes us. After all, no act of kindness, no matter how small, is insignificant.
Instead of giving money to someone on the streets, I will often buy them a sandwich or a hot coffee. And sometimes, it is enough just to have a conversation with that person.
If you’re just starting out on this journey, something as simple as smiling and saying “Hello” is a positive step. Ultimately, we want to show dignity and respect to people who have been robbed of such.
Jesus Himself treated social outcasts and sinners with dignity and compassion. He even shared a meal with prostitutes! Maybe there’s something we could learn from His interactions with the poor and downtrodden.
3. Use common sense
On the one hand, we need to think about how to better serve our local communities and reach out to people who are homeless. But on the other hand, we also need to exercise common sense.
While some of us have no qualms about speaking to a homeless person outside of a supermarket, that is a personal choice and not necessarily right for everyone. There have been times where I have seen people on the streets act aggressive. If that happens, we need to decide on a safe course of action. Definitely not all homeless people are dangerous or addicts, but we need to exercise common sense when interacting with people on the street.
4. Get on board
There are many charities that support homeless people in local communities. These charities offer a variety of services and projects, such as overnight shelters, addiction recovery programs, or community development.
Supporting a charity is a great way of partnering with others to tackle the issue of homelessness. We can do so by giving to charities, donating food and clothing at local food banks, or participating in an outreach program through church.
It’s easy to think “I’m just one person. How can I possibly make a difference?”
While we may not be able to perform the miracles Jesus did—raising the dead, restoring sight, casting out demons—we can extend the same life-changing dignity that He offered during His time on earth. Jesus treated each and every person He came across with dignity, knowing that they are made in God’s own image. We can do so as well.
Brothers and sisters, if there is one thing to remember when encountering the homeless, it’s this: treat everyone you meet as Jesus did—men and women, homeless and homeowners, rich and poor.
Let’s go back to the story I started this article with. After I introduced myself, the man told me that his name was David. I sat down beside him on the busy city street, watching people make their way home in the post-work commute.
“People can be really kind,” he said. As he munched on his sandwich, David told me all about how several local people had taken an interest in him and would buy him meals on occasion. A couple of women even told him about Jesus and His love for him.
“They told me that even though I’m homeless that God loves me and I’m still valuable to Him.”
As I listened to David share his story, it struck me that one simple thing we can do to love people well and to treat them with dignity is to listen. Let us learn how to listen purely so that others have the privilege to share their story.
Next time you pass by someone on the streets, give them just a few minutes of your time. Even the simplest of acts like having a conversation with someone who is homeless isn’t just saying “I hear you”; it’s demonstrating “I see you because He loves you.”
Be a representative of His incomprehensible peace, undeserving grace and overwhelming love.