“I know the hardships of being a working man [on a low income] without drug problems,” shares Tony, “and there’s really no housing situation out there for someone like that. If I had drinking and drug issues, then I could show up at shelters and participate and have a place to sleep. But I’m paying my child support; I’m not causing any problems.”
“I was homeless for two years. I slept in my car.”
Tony shares his story, and what follows is a strategy to equip your church to respond to situations like his.
“I was laid off about the same time I got a divorce, and I went about six months without finding a job. I finally landed a job with a food service where I was going to people’s doors selling food. My income dropped about $20,000 a year. The hours are really long, working ten-, twelve-, fourteen-hour days.
“My employer puts me up two to three days a week in hotels, but for two years, a vehicle was my residence. I put everything in a storage building, and I spent two to three nights a week sleeping in my car.”
How do you help the “mobile homeless” person?
People residing in their cars is not a new phenomenon.1 Of the 578,424 homeless people in the United States, about two in five are living in unsheltered locations, which includes cars, campgrounds, temporary trailers, or abandoned buildings.2
What help and solutions can your church offer for the hardworking person who cannot afford standard housing? When these situations arise, it’s too late to put a program into place to help. It adds to the stress of the moment. Here are ways you can prepare your church to respond to situations like Tony’s.
Prepare your people to respond with compassion
The Bible has much to say about the connection between hard work and success, laziness and poverty. Many of these statements are found in the book of Proverbs (10:4, 19:15, 24:30–34), and then there’s Paul’s famous statement in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” It can be tempting for our members to assume that people who are down on their luck just aren’t trying hard enough.
When talking about poverty, help people understand that the Bible points out that laziness isn’t the only reason people are poor. For example, Psalm 10:2–11 describes the wicked man who hunts down the weak and catches them in the schemes he devises. Other causes of poverty include widowhood, abandonment/divorce, health, disabilities, age, and loss of job.
If people only think that those who are poor are poor due to moral failure, then they won’t have a mental category in which to place people genuinely in need. As a result, they’ll think the person in need is lying, lazy, or exaggerating about his challenges, and they’ll be less likely to help. If they do choose to help, their attitude might not be the best.
Prepare your people to be inconvenienced
Ministry opportunities don’t present themselves during business hours. You know that. But some of your people don’t. If they wait for the perfect opportunity to serve, those in need will go without help—or the responsibility will all fall on you.
You might want to remind people that the Apostle Paul said ministry opportunities can create a tension for those who have family responsibilities (1 Cor. 7:32–34). The internal pull a person feels when presented with an opportunity to serve isn’t necessarily a sign of spiritual immaturity. It’s normal for the desire to serve others to compete with the desire to serve and care for one’s family. You’ll have to help people learn how to make those choices wisely, so they don’t neglect their families for the sake of the ministry and vice versa.
Prepare your people to offer practical help
People in need can be unaware of the resources available in a church and community; they can also be unaware of the fact that there are people out there who can, will, and want to help.
Valuable short-term helps include the following:
- Housing – Some people in your church will have a desire to open their home to strangers. Ask and see, so you have a list of people to refer the homeless to.
- Storage – People might be willing to store the personal belongings of individuals who are in a transitional or homeless state.
- Safe parking – Some churches and businesses provide a safe place to park for a person living out of a vehicle (with guidelines and within local laws).3
- Practical needs – People in your church can provide car repairs, blankets, first-aid kits, or other specific needs.
The National Center on Employment & Homelessness says, “It’s critical to connect people with career pathways that lead to advancement and benefits and occupation-specific training to meet the needs of employers. It’s also critical to advocate for higher wages and better benefits for all workers, so that nobody who works has to live in poverty and homelessness.”
If you have a large church, you probably have staff dedicated to making these kinds of resources available and offering programs to help. If not, here are a few ministries you can connect people with.
Prepare your people for responsibility
In terms of encouraging people in the body to rise up and organize helps to meet a specific need, consider sharing this message: “If you see a need, and have a heart for a need, instead of suggesting that the church do something about it, pray about whether this is a ministry you need to be equipped to serve in or possibly lead.”
Organizing a helps ministry isn’t for everyone, but there are people in your church body who can organize effective ministry to individuals or groups of people in your community. These might be people in a stage of life who might have more free time (retirees, singles), or they might be people who have faced a similar situation in the past and have a specific understanding of the felt needs.
Some people are waiting to be challenged, yearning to be released to take on such responsibility.
Who helped Tony
After two years of living out of his car, Tony ran into the wife of a former coworker and longtime friend. “I had started working with Joseph when I was a twenty-year-old,” shares Tony, “and I knew him, his wife, and their four children for all these years. He was one of ‘those’ Christians. I ran across his wife at a filling station one night, and we talked for a while. Joe called me up the next day, and I went over to visit, and I’m living with them now.” Joseph and his family stepped up and offered practical help as soon as they were aware of the situation.
“Through this, I learned I was not the only person doing this,” says Tony. “I can tell when someone’s living in their car, just from looking inside their vehicle. When I get on my feet, I’ll have to think about how can I help somebody like that.”
How have you helped working, homeless individuals in your area?
- Department of Housing and Urban Development, The 2014 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, Part 2, November 2015. https://www.hudexchange.info/onecpd/assets/File/2014 AHARPart2.pdf
- http://www.dreamsforchange.org/services/safeparking/, http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle news/eastside/desperatelyneededsafeparkingspacesforhomeless/, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/markhorvath/peoplelivinginvehicles_b_3728214.html