Recently a friend asked me about interacting with the homeless in the context of an experience she had. Below is our conversation:
Last night, a homeless man came up to me to ask for money. I was with my friends from the gym. He said that he needed money to get into a shelter and how mad he was that he was having a hard time raising just $9 in order to go to the Veteran's Hospital. He seemed visibly high/drunk, so my first thought was that I didn't even want to reach into my purse and get out my wallet just in case he attacked us. He seemed very upset that most of us just stood there and stared at him. Since he was upset, my "safety mode" kicked in and I didn't say anything to him. Finally, one of the girls gave him $2 and he walked away very angry.
It bothered me that I didn't really say or do anything because my first instinct was that he was going to use the money for drugs or booze. What do you guys typically do? I know you have a huge heart for homeless people. I didn't even know which shelter to send him to. The bigger irony was that I was just telling my friends about God. These were the girls I work out with that I spend so much time investing in. I was just telling them about my faith and then we came out of class and ran into this guy. I felt like such a bad witness that I didn't say or offer anything to him. I know that no one thought anything of me, but I was screaming at myself in my head.
What is the right response? What do you guys normally do?
Sadly homelessness is one of the very real and difficult realities of ministry, especially in an urban area. First, I think it was wise of you to consider your safety in the moment. I have never been harmed Downtown, even late at night by myself, and have only felt "unsafe" once. But as a woman that is a necessary reality to consider.
I think Jason and I would both say there is no “right” response for every homeless person. We usually handle them on a case-by-case basis. This means you have to be continuously praying and think on your feet. It also means you will mess up and sometimes you will be taken advantage of. I can even think of a specific instance when I was conned.
I would say if someone is drunk/high, it is not a good time to give them money. [People who work professionally with the homeless say to never give them money.] Additionally we don't reward belligerent behavior either. If you feel led of God and safe doing so, an easy option is to walk into the nearest business and buy them some food. This is also a great way to weed-out whether someone wants money for genuine purposes or not.
Jason and my main goal is relationship. So if we can engage in conversation with a homeless person we will usually know their motivations. However, some lie and will tell you the same story night after night. It's tricky. But like I mentioned earlier, we deal with people on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes we fail and other times we succeed. For example, right now there is a 17-year-old-girl we are hoping to connect with and potentially let her spend a few nights at our house, and then get her into the rescue mission to get back on her feet.
In terms of your friends from the gym, I would have an open an honest conversation with them. Tell them what you told us about going into safety mode and not knowing the right thing to do. It's a perfect opportunity to remind them you're not perfect and you're still trying to figure out this Jesus thing too. Plus it sounds as if they may have felt similarly to you.
Have you had experiences interacting with the homeless or you dealt with other difficult ministry situations? I'd love to hear from you.
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