Archive for March, 2010

How to help the homeless get off the street

March 9, 2010

An approach that is proving to be helpful is what we call the “service first” model – inviting the homeless to take part in service projects that benefit others. Several months ago we did just such a project and of the seven who came out to help, six are now off the street. And the one who is still homeless has changed in other ways – he is now the first to volunteer to help out, no longer stares at the ground, and is willing to engage in short conversations. Time will tell, but I am very encouraged by these results.

One of the seven had been homeless for nine years and is now in a residential facility that provides meaningful opportunities to earn money while receiving treatment for addiction. He has been aware of his problem and this program for some time and has been encouraged to take part but until he was asked to help others he was not willing to go into the program. He said, “Helping people made me realize I still have something to offer, it gave me hope.”

Two of the others got jobs within a couple of weeks of the service project. One of whom said that the service project changed his perspective on his situation and prompted him to take action. He knew he needed a job. He knew he had skills. Helping others reminded him that he had value and deserved more in life. It helped in ways that mere verbal encouragement or lecturing did not – he was able to experience his worth first-hand. This experience led to change.

Three of the seven were inspired to reconcile with their families. Being estranged from loved ones who might otherwise care for them is a common issue among the homeless. Having the experience of serving others provided enough momentum from them reach out to their families. While I don’t know the full extent of this estrangement, I do know there was a great deal of pain and distrust. When our sense of self-worth improves so does our capacity to move into painful situations with hope. Helping others can be a catalyst to reconciliation and certainly played a part with these individuals.

I have known each of these seven for some time, so it was not just random homeless people that were invited to serve. Undoubtedly this played a big part of them showing up and was a factor in the outcomes. I teach a Bible study each week to 40 or so homeless folks at Compassion Corner and focused the teaching for two months prior to the service project on the passages in the New Testament that mention service (literally every instance of the Greek word diakoneo). We learned that service, or ministry to others, does not tend to be the central theme of these passages. Rather, the passages involve a narrative account or a teaching about a related subject like faith or love. Service is just mentioned matter-of-factly as a normal part of the life of faith. Surprisingly, we also found that the most frequent recipient of ministry was Jesus himself and that he clearly identifies with the needy and says what we do for them, we do for him. We also learned that Jesus came to serve and save that which was lost. Our discussions were edifying, helped strengthen my faith, and provided a biblical framework from which to invite everyone into serving others. Most did not come out. Seven did. All seven experienced their worth and soon thereafter made changes in their life that demonstrated that they believed.

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