by Jessica Davis
The topic of homelessness/houselessness and housing insecurity in the U.S. is both deeply complex and incredibly simple. The simple part is that people need and deserve housing and that there are more than enough material resources in the country (and world) to make sure everyone has it. The complicated part comes when we acknowledge that human beings are terrible at sharing resources and that there is much that needs to be adjusted in our social machinery in order to get those abundant resources redistributed in ways that are just.
Educate yourselves on the basics
It is crucial that congregations wanting to begin a ministry team geared at doing this redistribution work learn basic facts about homelessness/houselessness and housing insecurity both on a national level and in your own communities. Misinformation on the topic is widespread. For example, many Americans are unaware that there are more than enough empty houses on any given day to shelter all of our nation’s homeless. “Middle-class” folks tend to vastly underestimate their wealth while also vastly overestimating their level of housing insecurity. It is not at all uncommon for people who believe they are middle class to discover that they are actually in the top 10-20% of wage earners, and yet only 2-3 month’s salary stands between them and homelessness.
So, it’s crucial to gather accurate information and data before beginning corrective efforts, especially on a local level. Find out details such as these: How many people in your county/town/neighborhood are homeless? How many of those are unsheltered versus sheltered homeless? Is homelessness increasing or decreasing? How many people with homes are living below the poverty line? How many of your local homeless population are children?
Establish a theology of housing
Bad and unbiblical theology is rampant in ministries geared toward helping homeless/houseless and housing insecure people. From ministry efforts that refuse to give people money for fear they’ll spend it on drugs to organizations like the Salvation Army letting a trans person freeze to death on their doorway because they believed trans people are undeserving of help, Christians have caused extraordinary harm to this vulnerable population.
It is for this reason that churches must be crystal clear on what scripture has to say on the matter: that all deserve shelter and care, that all people are reflections of God’s own face, that conditional help is not help at all, and that help offered without love is worth little more than clanging gongs and resounding cymbals. If your congregation is not on board with these basic biblical principles, they may not yet be ready to provide direct service/care, and their efforts might better be focused at providing resources to organizations that are.
Examine root causes
Though the central causes of all homelessness and housing insecurity are greed and capitalism (yes, genuinely supporting homeless and housing insecure people is going to mean talking about capitalism, which can be challenging in many congregations!), the specific situations tend to vary from community to community. Talk with local service organizations and listen to the stories of people directly affected and notice what patterns emerge. (A note about language: folks who have lived on the street, myself included, often prefer the term “homeless,” while those are without houses, but have access to other types of shelter often prefer the term “houseless,” but these are very general categories. Defer to the people directly affected in your community when deciding what terminology to use).
Talk to and trust homeless/houseless and housing insecure people
Simply talking to homeless/houseless and housing insecure people isn’t enough. We must trust them to know their own stories and understand the oppressive systems that caused those things to happen to them. I can’t count how many times it happened when I was homeless that people either refused to believe that I was homeless at all or insisted that I was homeless because I was stupid, lazy, wanting to be “edgy,” etc. etc. But none of it was true. My first bout of homelessness was when I was a teenager. My mother was unable to care for me and so I was on my own. I was going to school and working three part-time jobs but it just wasn’t enough money to live on. In a capitalist society, we often get very attached to the myth that poverty is a moral failing. It can be easy to want to make poor people’s fate about everything but money … “they’re homeless because they’re mentally ill or they don’t want to work,” and so on. But the fact of the matter is that people are homeless because they can’t afford homes.
We also need to listen to them when they tell us what they need, both on the macro and micro level. For example, people in power love to insist on building “tiny homes,” despite the fact that there’s only a very small and very particular segment of the homeless population who want them. Time and time again, homeless/houseless and housing insecure people have told us what they need to have safety and stability—buildings to live in (actual buildings with heat, beds, and plumbing), health care, jobs and transportation to those jobs, and, most of all, community. And every time we do studies about what works and what doesn’t, we find out that homeless people are right about what works for them.
This also counts for when we ask them what they need in the moment. If what they need is a bus token to get to an appointment with their case worker and we give them a sandwich instead, we haven’t helped. A special note is needed about how we approach the folks we’re asking to speak to us. Whether we approach someone who is living in a house, a tent, or just a patch of sidewalk, it is their living space and they have the right to invite us in or not, to talk with us or not. We are asking them to interrupt their sleep, or their family time, or their working hours (yes, panhandling is work), and we need to understand when they tell us no and compensate them—with currency that’s actually valuable to them—when they tell us yes.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
Once you’ve gathered information and are ready to begin your work, it can seem tremendously overwhelming. There are hundreds of thousands of homeless people and millions of housing insecure people in the U.S. By the time people become homeless, they have often lost everything. Not only do they not have homes but they likely don’t have food, beds, medicine, or healthcare either. It’s easy to get paralyzed by the enormity of the need. But there are already other people doing this work. It’s up to us to listen to the people directly affected to find out what they need, figure out who is already providing what, and fill in the gaps. Often what’s most needed from us, far more than simple material goods, will be things like protests, lobbying, and annoying lawmakers and police departments. One huge advantage churches have in this work is our collective voices and the power that provides.
Lastly, check in frequently with the people directly affected and establish clear benchmarks to know if your efforts are actually being successful. Be humble and adaptable and remember that our Lord, who “has nowhere to lay his head,” will never abandon us as we do this important work.
Jessica Davis, MA is a church consultant, organizer, and freelance writer and speaker living in the Philadelphia area. Her ministry passions include: youth ministry, church music, community visioning, and education and advocacy re: diversity, equity, and inclusion. When not doing churchy things, she can usually be found knitting, volunteering with refugees and asylum-seekers, or working as a freelance makeup artist. You can connect with her work through Jessica Davis Church Consulting on Facebook.