I have lived and worked in cities and towns of varying sizes. Each one has its own personality, its own strengths (and weaknesses). And all of them have homeless populations.
When I work now it is not unusual to encounter the homeless on my way to and from work. I see them curled up in sleeping backs during my morning commute, and find them hovering near the stairwells of buildings. Asking for change, or food, or something.
Different places do different things to help people out. There are, of course, different charity drives, soup kitchens, warming shelters, and overnight shelters. During the winter months, the holiday season, people tend to do more for the homeless, and others in need, though I would encourage you to think about helping out other times as well. Those in need are not only in need during the Thanksgiving-to-Christmas season.
It’s important to remember that the person huddled in that sleeping bag on the street-corner, asking everyone who passes by for change, is first and foremost a person. Often they get stigmatized, become stereotypes or caricatures, a part of the backdrop of your every day. It can be easy to jump to conclusions and make assumptions, but I encourage you to try not to. Those people you pass — just like the businessperson, or the teenagers, or the little kids with their parent — are people with a myriad of needs, wants, desires. They have lives that have been lived, people who have cared (and perhaps who still do care) about them. They have stories and experiences. Yes, there is need for food, warmth, and shelter. Yes, there is a need for healthcare both physical and mental. But let’s not forget that there are also other needs.
Those of us with food on the table, the luxury of warmth, and roofs over our heads would not be content with just those. There are little things that we often overlook: the gloriousness of a steaming hot beverage, the joy of being able to sit and escape into a book, passing smiles, hugs and physical touch, sitting and talking with friends, the time to feed their spirit and soul (in whatever form that may take).
Needs are not just physical.
I’ve had the privilege of getting to participate with some organizations that try to help provide a little something more. “My” coffee cart (the wonderful Ole Coffee, in Portland, Oregon) has a “suspended coffee” board. People can buy a coffee for someone else (at a discounted price), and then those who don’t have the money for a coffee can claim it at some point. It’s awesome to look at the board, because it isn’t just drip coffees that get suspended. Latte’s, baked goods, cocoa, espresso, anything on the menu can be suspended. It’s a simple way to facilitate people being able to give in a way that is needed and wanted.
Another example is Grace Street Ministry, in Portland, Maine. This isn’t that evangelical “we’re going to save your soul” kind of ministry. The ministers involved in this spend most of their time not talking about religion at all — instead they are handing out shoes, coats, socks, sweaters, clothing, toiletries, gift cards for local eateries — you name it. But they are always ready to offer a prayer, to hold a hand, to give a blessing — if that is what the person needs and wants in that moment. They have gotten to know the people, can lend some assistance in finding resources, and do what they can to provide for the less tangible needs. Weekly (weather permitting) they hold a very simple worship service on the street-corner across from the day-shelter. I participated in one of these once and it was amazing in its simplicity and power. There was no sermon, just a simple blessing with words we could all read. We stood in a circle, holding hands (for those who wanted), during a prayer. Then a communion of a croissant dipped in grape juice was offered. Simple, short, and powerful. Communion is not a part of my personal spiritual practice, but this one was powerful and meaningful even so.
Finally, I’ve been reading Gotta Find a Home: Conversations with Street People, a blog with some great stories about the lives of those the author has gotten to know. It is a great glimpse into their lives, and a reminder that we all have a story to tell.
It is easy to remember to give thanks for what we have in this season, and easy to remember to give to those who do not have as much. But remember that there are needs outside of the season, and needs outside of the “basics.” I give thanks that I am in a place that I can give to others. Throughout the year I try to seek out ways to do this, to give where I can. And every day I force myself to challenge my assumptions, to push past seeing a “homeless person” to simply seeing a person. A person with stories and experiences, wants and needs, not far different from my own.