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3 Things I Learned From the Homeless

“Keep an eye out for watermelon boxes. They’re the thickest ones out there,” Fridge instructed as we headed for that night’s cardboard run.

It was only my second night sleeping on the streets, but I already knew exactly what Fridge—one of our guides for the weekend who has spent many years homeless—was talking about.

It was raining that late winter’s night in Melbourne, Australia and the temperature was expected to drop close to freezing. A thick piece of cardboard from a watermelon box would provide that extra few centimeters of distance from the cold, wet concrete sidewalk that I would try to sleep on as city trains, traffic, street lights, and noisy pedestrians did their best to keep me awake.

 

Waking up sore and tired, the way many rough sleepers have to do on a regular basis.

 

When I got the email a few weeks earlier inviting my wife and I to join a group becoming rough sleepers* for a weekend, I instantly felt nervous. I knew my wife would jump at the opportunity, since helping the disadvantaged and marginalized in society has a special place in her heart. But to be honest, I was a little scared.

We had both recently started leading a team from an organization called Many Rooms that provide meals and other services to the homeless and disadvantaged of Melbourne. Even though I was hesitant to give up the comforts of my home to sleep rough for two nights, I knew that the experience would give me a glimpse into what the homeless of my city and around the world face every day.

And so my wife and I joined a group of eight people associated with Many Rooms who would meet up with three men from Melbourne Rough Sleepers (MRS): Fridge, PJ, and John. These men have lived or still live as rough sleepers themselves, and they would act as our guides throughout the weekend.

 

Our first night rough sleeping. We would not get much sleep that cold, windy night.

 

Little did I know that the experience would be one that not only changed my perspective about the homeless community, but also made me realize things about myself that I had never known. Here are three lessons I learned that weekend:

 

1. Be Wary of Stereotypes

Whether consciously or subconsciously, we tend to generalize any group of society that we are not familiar with. When I started the weekend on the street, I realized that I had done the same with rough sleepers. The stereotype of those who are homeless being drunks, drug addicts, mentally ill, or just plain lazy, was not the reality of many that we met.

Instead, we heard stories of rough sleepers fleeing domestic violence, and learned that the best place for them to hide was sleeping on the street. Another common story was of middle-aged men caught up in messy divorces who would lose their houses and their savings on legal fees trying to get their kids back. One person we met had grown up in foster homes his entire childhood and ran away at 16 to literally join the circus. Eventually, he found his way to the street and has been a part of the community ever since. Another memorable person we talked to said he had “concrete in his blood” due to the decades living on the street. He shared about the anger and violence issues he has dealt with stemming from his childhood when he was sexually abused.

I learned that everyone has a unique story and is dealing with their own issues. It is so important that we do not let our pre-conceived notions about a group in society prevent us from seeing others as God sees them—as people created in His image and loved by Him. The experience also made me reflect on what other hidden or subconscious stereotypes I have and how that may be preventing me from serving and loving others in society as Jesus would want me to.

As I reflected on the weekend, I kept going back to Genesis 1:27—the assurance that God created all of us in His image. May we look at all of our fellow human beings in the same light, regardless of the stereotypes we may have.

 

2. The Gift of Time and Respect

One of the toughest moments of the weekend started with a challenge given by our guides: to ask people for a dollar coin or a cigarette. Two successes were required for you to “pass” the challenge.

Being asked for spare change from people on the street is not an uncommon experience for many who live in a city. But being on “the other side” was an eye-opening experience. I suddenly became aware of how I appeared (and probably how I smelled) after a couple days on the street. I would search the faces of pedestrians passing by, wondering who would be the kind soul that would say yes to a stranger asking for money.

As I did so, I realized it wasn’t the rejections to my pleas that hurt the most. It was the shake of a head without even a word to acknowledge my existence. It was the quickening of their steps to walk away from me after they had said no. It was the way they paid more attention to their phone than they did to me.

On the flip side, when people said yes, it wasn’t the coin or cigarette that meant the most. It was the acknowledgement of me as a person and the time they took to help out a fellow human being.

While talking with other rough sleepers and trying to discern how I could serve them better in my role with Many Rooms, the common theme that came up was their desire to be respected and treated as any other person.

When I asked what were some ways people could show respect for them, the answer was time. Time going out of your way to share a meal with them. Time acknowledging them as human beings who are in a tough spot right now. Time spent sitting down and chatting about stuff, even if it’s about your favorite sports teams or debating the relevance of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars.

Time and respect. Just like we all want.

This practice can also be applied to other aspects of our lives. Taking the time to chat with that elderly person even though we’re in a rush. Taking the time to patiently counsel a friend in need, even though we’d rather be bundled up on the couch watching Netflix. Taking the time to really learn about the needs and concerns of family members so we can serve and help them in a way that points them to the light of Jesus inside of us.

 

3. The Power of Light Over Darkness

When searching for a place to sleep each night, there were a few criteria that we were looking out for. One of the key ones was whether the area was well lit. We learned that there was less chances of danger in the light. And because of that, you could sleep with a bit more ease in the light.

At one point during the weekend, PJ, one of our guides, shared with me his favorite verse: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“I’ve been through a lot of low points in my life, a lot of dark times,” PJ shared. “This verse helped me a lot during those times. To head towards the light even in the darkness.”

During that weekend, I heard many stories of those who have lived through dark times. And just like every human on earth, there is a light that we are searching for, that we all need. My prayer is that just as we strive to fill the physical and practical needs of the homeless in our cities, that they would also come to know the light that shines in the darkness. And that no matter how dark their pasts have been or how low they feel right now, the darkness will not overcome the light we find in Jesus. Because even in the darkest of times when there seems to be no way out, Jesus has promised us that He will be there, that He came to “seek and to save the lost.”

 

*A more friendly term for those who are homeless and sleeping on the street.

 

The last day of our weekend experience. Despite being tired, dirty and cold, we grew close as a team with our shared experiences.

 

4 Tips For Reaching Out To The Homeless

“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.