I parked my car in a coveted parking space directly in front of Starbucks. I was glad for a short walk since it was cold enough to snow. I locked my door and rushed against the wind toward the tantalizing aroma that wafted out of the double doors.
From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of someone approaching. I walked a bit faster. I had a feeling it was a homeless person who was going to ask me for money. Sure enough, I heard his voice despite the violent wind.
“Excuse me, ma’am.”
I wanted to just keep walking. I was almost to the doors and warmth and coffee. But my conscience wouldn’t let me ignore him. I turned and faced his strained eyes. Although his look was disheveled, he appeared to be quite young under his overgrown beard. He wore a beanie and a dirty, threadbare coat.
“I don’t mean to scare you,” he said, raising his shaking hands. “Can you help me?”
I’m sure many of you have been in a similar situation. Perhaps you’ve seen a homeless-looking person near a place of business holding a sign. And if you’re like me, you become extremely uncomfortable and maybe even a little afraid. Many of the homeless are on drugs or alcohol, or are mentally ill, right? It seems so much easier, and safer, to just avoid eye contact. To walk on by and pretend we don’t see them. But ignoring them does not make them go away. In fact, Jesus said, “You will always have the poor among you…” (John 12:8).
According to a one-night national survey done last January by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are 564,708 homeless people in the United States. That’s more than half a million people living on the streets, in cars, in homeless shelters, or in subsidized transitional housing. Of that number, 206,286 were people in families, 358,422 were individuals, and a quarter of the entire group were children.
Those numbers don’t reflect what I have believed about the homeless. I never imagined there are that many homeless children here in the United States. According to the same survey, there are approximately 550,000 unaccompanied, single youth under the age of 24 experiencing a homeless episode of longer than one week. About 380,000 of that total are under 18.It’s difficult to get an accurate counting of homeless children and youth. The National Alliance to End Homelessness explains, “Homeless youth are less likely to spend time in the same places as homeless people who are in an older age range. They are often less willing to disclose that they’re experiencing homelessness or may not even identify as homeless. They also may work harder to try to blend in with peers who aren’t homeless.”
It’s difficult to get an accurate counting of homeless children and youth. The National Alliance to End Homelessness explains, “Homeless youth are less likely to spend time in the same places as homeless people who are in an older age range. They are often less willing to disclose that they’re experiencing homelessness or may not even identify as homeless. They also may work harder to try to blend in with peers who aren’t homeless.”
So, there I stood face to face with a young man who asked for my help. I could hear Christmas music playing from the speakers outside of Starbucks. I thought of the gifts that were in the trunk of my car, and how I was about to go in and buy a $5 cup of coffee. Surely I could help him with something to eat.
“Wait here,” I said. He nodded, looking at the ground.
I went to my car and grabbed a granola bar. “Here,” I said handing it to him. “I’ll go in and get you some coffee too.”
“Thanks,” he said, still looking down.
When I returned with the coffee, I was compelled to asked, “Do you have a family?” I struggled to find the right words. “Uh, I mean, why are you out here? It’s Christmas time.”
“My stepdad who beats my mom kicked me out,” he said flatly. This time his green eyes caught mine briefly before he looked back at the ground, stuffing his hands in his coat pockets.
That was not the answer I expected. Honestly, I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. I hesitated then finally said, “I’ll pray for you. I’m so sorry.”
Driving away slowly, I watched him through my mirror. A scripture from James 2:16 echoed in my mind: “..and you say, ‘Goodbye and have a good day; stay warm and eat well’—but then you don’t give that person any food or clothing. What good does that do?”
As I laid in my warm comfortable bed that night, I prayed for the young homeless man, realizing I never even asked his name. Where would he be sleeping? Where would others like him be sleeping—other nameless faces I’d passed on so many occasions without an acknowledgment? I could picture him pressed up against the back wall outside of Starbucks laying on the cold ground. The thought made me shutter.
“Lord, forgive me for turning a blind eye to people on the streets. Please show me how I can do more,” I whispered.
I compiled a list of what kept me from helping the homeless and what I have learned may prevent others as well. Then I compared the excuses to the Word of God.
Excuses Why People Don’t Help the Homeless
1. There are “programs” to help them. Loving and helping our neighbor is the responsibility of each and every Christian. In the parable of The Good Samaritan, (Luke 10:30-37) Jesus explains this. The takeaway from the parable is this: Our neighbor is any fellow human being, especially one in need. I encourage you to read the parable even if it’s one you know well.
“ If someone has enough money to live well and sees a brother or sister in need but shows no compassion—how can God’s love be in that person?” 1 John 3:17
“Blessed are those who are generous because they feed the poor.” Proverbs 22:9
2. I don’t want to enable an addiction or laziness. Many don’t want to give money because they fear an addict will use it for alcohol or drugs. You don’t need to give money unless you feel God leading you to do so. Giving food is not enabling. Jesus freely gave to the sick and the poor.
“Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Matthew 19:21
“Give, and you will receive. Your gift will return to you in full—pressed down, shaken together to make room for more, running over, and poured into your lap. The amount you give will determine the amount you get back.“” Luke 6:38
3. What Can One Ordinary Person Do? Many of the programs designed to help the homeless and the poor are successful due to the help of volunteers from within the community. The existence of programs and organizations does not exempt the individual Christian from our God-given responsibility to love our neighbor as ourselves. The best way to shine our light is to show love and compassion to others.
I used to read the Bible and think I could never accomplish the things that the men and women of scripture did. As I became more familiar with the Bible, I realized my thinking didn’t line up with God’s teaching. God, in fact, uses the ordinary person.
“Elijah was as human as we are, and yet when he prayed earnestly that no rain would fall, none fell for three and a half years! Then, when he prayed again, the sky sent down rain and the earth began to yield its crops.” James 5:17-18 (emphasis added)
“ The members of the council were amazed when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, for they could see that they were ordinary men with no special training in the Scriptures.They also recognized them as men who had been with Jesus.” Acts 4:13 (emphasis added)
I love the idea that others recognized them as men who had been with Jesus! The same goes for us today.
Showing compassion to a homeless person is something even just an ordinary person can do. Remember, God takes our ordinary and makes it extraordinary! We have no idea the power one cup of coffee can hold when the Holy Spirit is involved.
4. I Don’t Know How to Help. Most every community has at least one homeless shelter or rescue mission. With the convenience of the internet, it’s easy to search your local community’s resources.
My suggestion is to look for an organization that does the following: States their mission. Shows a breakdown of where the donations received goes. Keeps track of the people who come in for help. Prays for those who come in. Assists in finding work if this is applicable to individuals seeking help. Bible studies are a wonderful resource as well.
It wasn’t long after the incident with the young homeless man that my women’s Bible study got connected with our local rescue mission. I knew this was an answer to my prayer. Our study began making hygiene bags for the homeless that we call Blessing Bags. Many of us are still doing this on a regular basis. We keep some of the bags in our cars which are handy to give out on the spot (in lieu of money). Additional bags are taken to our local rescue mission to give out to those who come in for help. They’re really simple and pretty cheap to put together. I bought all the items from the dollar store.
To make your own Blessing Bags, here’s what you’ll need:
Gallon size zip lock bags or quart size for smaller bags
Packages of tissue
Toothbrush and toothpaste
Pack of gum
Water bottle or juice box
Hand wipes and/or hand cleaner
Warm socks, gloves
Information about your local homeless shelter or missions
A note of encouragement or scripture
When researching shelters in my community, I found out that 41% of homeless individuals are women and children. I spoke with a wonderful man named Michael from my local rescue mission. Four years ago, he was on the streets himself. Today, he works for the mission, serving the less fortunate and homeless.
Many times the average person would like to do something but is concerned about safety and of being scammed. When I asked Michael about those who are addicts or who “scam” the system, he told me that his organization works to keep from enabling those who attempt to take advantage of the programs by keeping records of its recipients. As I stated previously, this is a good thing to check when you are researching organizations in your community. We want to help, not enable. Michael also said they give out about 40 hygiene bags on Fridays. It made me smile to know I was doing something that may make even a small difference.
I still think about and pray for the young man who was homeless at Christmas. I wish I would have known then what I do now. I wish I could have directed him to a shelter where he could get a hot meal and a shower—a place where someone would share the love of Christ with him.
Instead, the Lord used him to teach me. I hope his story touches you too. The fact is, there are a lot of people— many are women and children—who are homeless this Christmas. We have the opportunity to show Christ’s love in tangible ways if we will just open our hearts and our eyes.