Good Works has been caring for people who become homeless for over 30 years and there seem to be more people in need of shelter today than when we first started. So what is the solution? What are we really doing to address the problem of people without homes? Two words come to me again and again as I conclude that in order to help some people, the helpers have to extend themselves beyond traditional thinking. We have to face the realities of sacrifice, service and suffering. Can we do this through the lens of individualism? Absolutely not! Do some of us with homes believe we have anything to say or do that will help homeless people or must we relegate the solutions to this problem to the professionals and the agencies? Maybe there are people who want to do more and also have the will to try new forms of hospitality. Maybe the role of organizations like Good Works is to use our experience and perspective to create new models that are doable for those who want to try things they have never done before.
So, here is a new idea for addressing the problem of homelessness: Some people with homes, who can, should take homeless people into their homes. Again, I ask can we do this through the lens of individualism? Absolutely not! This is something that we must organize ourselves together with others to make happen. And we simply begin with faith. We spell faith R-I-S-K.
Do you want to try this in partnership with Good Works? Do you have a few close friends that are willing to support you? If you do your part, will your friends do “their” part? Together, we can go places that by ourselves are unthinkable. And as we build high levels of trust with one another, we can do things unimaginable that can really help needy people. Is the idea of ordinary people taking people who are homeless into their own home too radical? Have we been trained to think only inside the box?
Not everyone can do this. Some are in a season of life where this is not possible right now. Other simply don’t have the facilities or have other limiting factors. But some people can do this and it is our job to create the possibility of innovation.
Conventional thinking tells us that if you want to really solve a social problem like homelessness, you form a non-profit, obtain a building, raise money, hire a staff and create a shelter. To sustain your work, you raise more money, write policy, enforce standards and help people ‘come off the streets’. Isn’t that what Good Works has succeeded at doing? Well… yes… but no. In many ways, we have succeeded because we have helped so many people over the years with comfort, accountability, guidance and understanding all through the love of God. We have provided food and shelter and an environment of true support and encouragement—supporting people over time and empowering some of them to make the good choices they wanted. What we are doing should continue, and as we learn more, we should attempt to do it better. We can truly ask, “How can I love my neighbor as myself?” What would I hope for if I lost my home and my livelihood?
But I am having a paradigm shift. I want to create a way for ordinary people to explore the idea of inviting people into their own homes. I believe that, in the end, we need people who are poor as much or more than they need us. I think we can learn valuable things from the most needy of our communities. But again, some of this learning comes through the doors of sacrifice, service and suffering-with. We can struggle together to make the suffering person’s burden lighter, and in struggling together, we can grow closer, and break down our ideas us versus them, and just become “us.”
Does the structure we have invented at Good Works offer opportunities to people with homes to really help people in our shelter? I am struggling with this issue and I think we can do much more in this arena. For years, we have invited people into a PLACE. People who need help and people who want to help come to this place. This is an opportunity to invite people into a WAY of being and living. Once we find people who are interested in taking people into their homes, I suspect God wants us to think about both the problems and the solutions the homeless face and have a series of very frank discussions about the risks and opportunities. We are not experts, but our experience over the years does count for something and I believe we have wisdom and the ability to mentor people who want to participate in this form of loving-kindness.
So why not ask people to consider taking homeless people into their homes? Let me discuss three issues that I believe are legitimate but can be overcome. (This is not intended to be an exhaustive list.)
- Fear of the unknown. People are reluctant to take strangers into their homes because, to be honest, we don’t know what we are really getting ourselves into. I find this a very legitimate concern. But can we think through this or around this from another angle? What if we didn’t do it alone? What if we take this “plunge” of faith together with other people? Could that matter? Would taking this journey with a few others walking with us give us the courage we need to do it? What if we were able to build some trust with people before we took them into our homes? What if Good Works facilitated a range of opportunities for ordinary people to build trusting relationships with homeless people before they were invited into our homes? What if a small group of friends and family enter into this venture together? Then, while one or two people would actually share some of their living space, there would be others who would agree to provide other defined areas of support. Someone stays in my home, but Rick will step up to provide some transportation. Rita and Bill may help with some of the additional food costs, and Jerry will intentionally spend time with our guest each week. In this way, one person makes room in their home, but a close-knit community of people make room in their social lives. And the community of Good Works would provide on-going support, guidance and perspective.
- Many people value privacy over community and are reluctant to give up both psychological and physical ‘space’. We have become so accustomed to our freedom built in part by affluence that we hesitate to share space and resources with people who seem to have a high level of need and with whom we have a low level of trust. This is a reality that we need to work through by prayer, conversation, ruthless honesty and risking love. This piece should not be rushed but at the same time, we should be careful not to get stuck here. What if a small group of people decided to share responsibility for creating a supportive environment for a homeless person? What if, together, we did something heroic?
- Dependency – in a culture that teaches us that independence is normal, we tend to be apprehensive of people depending upon us. We resist the pressure that comes from having responsibility to people both because we have come to believe that it is not healthy for them and because it is not healthy for us. But is this value Christian or an American? Or have we assumed that since this is an American value, it is atomically a biblical value? Have we also assumed, through the lens of individualism that the only way for us to care for homeless people in our homes is when we do it by ourselves? Maybe the “sign” we are looking for to take this “plunge” comes when people we know and trust say to us “I’ll help you with that”. At the same time, we need to be balanced with the wisdom to know our limits and to know when helping becomes enabling or harmful. We need community to reflect back to us both the good and the bad of our relationships with people in crisis.
I have a dream that some people in our community would begin to explore what it might mean to open up our homes. I believe that there are people both with the resources and the psychological and spiritual maturity to take this risk because of the particular stage or season of life they are in.
What if these very people, open to exploring this adventure would take the first step by volunteering at The Timothy House with the intention of getting to know a few homeless people? What if there were a few homeless people who, from the first day they entered our shelter, expressed an interest in living with a single person or a family in response to our question about their future? And what if we were able to match willing singles or families with interested homeless people? Could this model work? At Good Works we are beginning to explore these ideas.
From the very beginning, anyone interested in the possibility of having a person move into their home must begin to ask a series of questions of themselves. These questions are intended to help explore legitimate limits. These questions serve as a catalyst to think through a range of issues and possibilities. Maybe thinking and talking is a good first step.
- How much do we value privacy and how much privacy am I willing to give up?
- Can God develop in me the attitude that what was once inconvenient can become an opportunity of worship which can give another person meaningful hope?
- What are the indications that I can really begin to trust someone who is a stranger to me? What are the signs that I don’t trust someone and why? How do I know who to trust and who not to trust? What is the role of my friends in this process? Am I willing to submit to a few friends as I take these steps of faith? Am I willing to submit to a few GW staff members in this process?
- How do I feel about someone depending upon me who is vulnerable? Do I fear I might take advantage of them? Do I fear they might take advantage of me?
- What are my expectations regarding how long it will take for someone to really get “back on their feet?” How long of an initial commitment am I comfortable making for this person who will move into my house? Should they agree to help with household chores?
- What about economics? Do I provide everything for this person? How do we negotiate their responsibilities in the house with the benefits of the house? Are they a “guest”? What is the best role for me and for them? What is the best language to describe their stay with us that facilitates dignity, responsibility and compassion?
- What is the hidden side of this risking adventure? Could I become a transformed person? Could this adventure bring out my best self? Am I going down a road that could lead to new thinking, new ideas and new ways of loving that truly fulfill me? Are sacrifice, service and suffering the real doors through which life become full and abundant after all?
- How can we help someone do as much for themselves as possible?
- Would I be OK with having someone stay with me long-term, or would a short-term commitment be better?
- What are my expectations of a person who would come and stay? How would they treat me, my house, my family?
- Can a person who comes to stay with me have friends and family over? What kind of boundaries do I need to ask him or her to follow?
- Do we need to have monthly check points, when we come together with staff to ask honest and hard questions about how things are going?
- What kind of privacy do I need? How do I feel about having house guests? What is hard for me about hospitality? What comes naturally?
- What are my own biases and fears?
As I see through a glass dimly, organizations like Good Works are in an excellent position to help facilitate (match) relationships between those who need help and those who want to help. While we are not experts, we do have some God-given experience and expertise.
If the match doesn’t work out, can the homeless person return to our shelter? Yes. Indeed, this is a model we have been using for years when residents move to The Hannah House and it can now be applied in a broader sense. In some ways, there are a few similarities to ‘foster-care’.
What if ordinary people wanted to take homeless people into their own homes? What if Good Works staff would mentor them and coach them? What if the Good Works community would screen the residents first? What if you wanted to do this? Then I suggest you start the conversation with us. We will be ready to talk!