American homelessness is on the rise, despite governments at all levels spending collective billions to alleviate the problem.
In Part 1, we discussed why large organizations like governments — which necessarily create one-size-fit-all solutions to serve the most people possible — aren’t equipped to solve a complex, highly-personalized issue like homelessness, especially when mental illness and drug addiction are involved.
Instead, small organizations and individuals who understand the needs of specific people and communities can best to provide effective homeless care, including long-term support programs founded in relationship and community.
Christians are particularly suited to care for the homeless because we recognize every person’s value as a precious creation of God and follow a clear biblical mandate to have compassion for the broken and disenfranchised.
Biblical compassion calls us beyond empathy to alleviate others’ pain, but it can be difficult to know which approaches to aiding the homeless are actually helpful.
Below are some tips and prompts to help you and your family prayerfully determine how to best aid your homeless neighbors.
Know Your Community
Christians’ efforts to end homelessness are most impactful in our local communities, but only if we understand the unique demographics and challenges facing our area.
Start by checking with your church to discover which Christian organizations are working in your community and where you can volunteer. Be curious about the challenges these groups face, and if some initiative and programs have been more successful than others.
Consider looking for opportunities that allow you to form relationships with homeless neighbors — community, friendship and emotional support are critical to helping someone get off and stay off the streets.
Local governments are also great places to find out information on homelessness in your area. Check official websites to discover what your government spends on aid programs, what organizations they partner with and what policies they enforce. This information is useful for understanding your community and forming educated policy opinions.
Types of Aid
Christians can undertake mercy- or justice-focused work to alleviate homelessness. Meeting the immediate needs of your community’s unhoused population for shelter, food, companionship, etc., is mercy-focused work; it eases the burdens of those experiencing the ravages of homelessness.
Justice-focused work aims to fix the systems and circumstances that cause people to become — and stay —homeless. This could include anything from connecting struggling families with low-income housing before they lose their home to volunteering in rehab programs helping homeless people achieve sobriety.
Mercy and justice are equally important, complimentary biblical concepts, but human aid will never be perfect applications of them. Sometimes, mercy-focused work enables homeless people to continue destructive behavior. Sometimes, justice-focused work tries so hard to fix damaging behaviors and systems that it forgets the importance of showing kindness and mercy.
It’s up to you, armed with knowledge of your community and with full reliance on the Holy Spirit, to decide which type will most help your homeless neighbors and discern if focusing exclusively on one type causes more harm than good.
It’s important to understand the practical and moral implications of different approaches to solving homelessness because governments constantly change and add policies purporting to aid the unhoused. To get started, try forming your stance on the following controversial issues:
Governments’ ability to enforce public camping laws has decreased since 2018, leading to an increase in homeless encampments, a known safety hazard, in states across the U.S. If safety is a concern, keep an eye out for local policy recommendations preventing homeless encampments from forming near protected areas like schools and parks.
If you support a policy like the one above, be careful to communicate to your children that homeless neighbors aren’t “other” or “less than.” Instead, try emphasizing that living outside is dangerous, and you want to ensure homeless people get access to the resources they need.
More Public Housing
As Housing First policies become more popular, many states are building new homeless shelters and government subsidized housing. This is an expensive solution to homelessness that proves effective for some homeless people and not for others—particularly the chronically homeless.
If you must vote on this issue in your community, check to see if the shelters and housing in your community are at capacity. If homeless people are being turned away due to lack of units or beds, perhaps more housing is a good idea. If shelter beds and housing units are available in your area, it’s an indication that homeless people either don’t know they are available or are avoiding them for a different reason. In these cases, more housing won’t help.
Harm reduction measures, like clean needle exchanges and decriminalizing minor drug offenses, are also on the rise. Harm reduction policies are supposed to reduce homeless peoples’ risk of death, particularly from disease, while using drugs. Harm reduction also allows people to get sober incrementally rather than quitting drugs cold turkey. Opponents of harm reduction policies argue they make it easier to use drugs, rather than easier to get sober. Consider reading up on implemented harm reduction policies and decide for yourself if they were effective.
Mental Health Intervention
Another controversial topic is how much the government should be involved in mental health care for the homeless. Governments will likely always fund some mental health assistance programs as part of America’s social safety net, but they have relatively limited authority to commit homeless people to institutions involuntarily. This policy can be frustrating, because some homeless people with mental illness can’t decide to get help on their own. Additionally, untreated mental illness can make a person a danger to themselves and others. On the other hand, this policy prevents officials from arbitrarily deciding who to institutionalize. Giving the government more authority to determine what constitutes mental illness might help some homeless people, but it would also open the door for the government to confine people they disagree with. Weigh the risks before you vote!
Homelessness is a heartbreaking part of our modern world, and Christians have a responsibility to be part of the solution. Use these points to help you and your family get started helping the homeless in your community. Pray for your family and Christians across the nation to make gracious, compassionate decisions about what kinds of aid and policies will most help the homeless and, as always, Pray for God to intervene on behalf of our nation to help homeless and chronically homeless people connect with the resources they need for relief.
Photo from Shutterstock