Stepping Up and Reaching Out
I was asked by a friend to write a reflection or thoughts about living with, working with and assisting those who are experiencing homelessness. My life also regularly involves going into Cook County Jail. When we choose to dedicate our lives to help those without homes, we quickly find it is far more eclectic than we could ever imagine. It involves, and is not limited to, helping people with their rap sheets, assisting those who are struggling with addictions, walking alongside those struggling with a mental illness or visiting with those who are chronically ill. The challenges are never dull and ever expanding. My hope in this rambling is that I can encourage those who aspire to do something similar.
These are just a few of my own personal opinions, aimed at inspiring anyone who wishes to enter this exciting, challenging and rewarding world. This is in no way comprehensive, but a list of what I see as most important for those who wish to dedicate years to fighting for and walking alongside those who are marginalized, oppressed, ostracized and downtrodden.
My opinions stem from over 20 years experience of working with the homeless in Chicago. I’ve learnt from my mistakes, misunderstandings and misjudgments. I’ve learnt from listening and befriending those who are living this reality. This also stems from my personal relationship with Jesus, trying to follow His loving example and attempting to do what He calls us to do. I hope my thoughts help inspire others to find new ways to courageously love and lift up those Jesus called us never to ignore, those who Jesus lovingly referred to as the “least of these” in his parable of the “Sheep and the Goats” found in Matthew 25...
- View and Treat Each Person Uniquely! We need to get away from generalizing and labeling people; many in society love to place those experiencing homelessness in degrading boxes. (eg. "all homeless are dangerous, lazy, drug addicts, moochers etc.") It's important also not to view them as just another number or statistic. We shouldn’t judge anyone’s gender, race, sexual orientation, religion or looks, but instead, we need to reverse the negative affects by seeing everyone we come in contact with as a unique individual, created and loved by God. Whoever they are or whatever they’ve done, each and every person deserves our respect and compassion. The range of differences the 350 people sleeping at CCO tonight have is incredible and it's blatantly dehumanizing and judgmental when we label them or view them as a number. Remember, every single person we encounter is unique, possessing a wide range of emotions, hopes, and dreams! Remember, everyone is trying to cope with their own struggles while attempting to utilize their talents; Just as we are!
- Earn Respect! Unfortunately, many who want to help, demand respect! They think that since they made a sacrifice, earnt their position and have the power, respect is simply guaranteed and those under them should just listen and obey. We often enter their worlds having more power, money, and privilege, but that doesn't mean we should come in the spirit of "top-on-down" colonizers. Jesus, who had all power, money, and privilege, shows us a vastly different way. He came humbly, He came in weakness. He came poor. He lived amongst us. He could have made rules from a lofty tower, He could have executed a vulgar display of power, but instead, He chose the path of compassion and love. Jesus chose grace and mercy. Don’t demand respect! Respect should be earnt! We earn respect by treating each person uniquely. We earn respect by being in the trenches too and going the extra mile! We earn respect by making sure that our actions and words sync! Just like Jesus!
- Bring Forgiveness! People who are experiencing homelessness or in jail know better than anyone else what they've done. They know their addictions. They know the effects of their mental illnesses. They are tortured by this reality everyday. They don’t need another self-righteous dude flooding them with more guilt. We shouldn’t bring judgement, but forgiveness. Society loves to hold people’s pasts up to their faces and then shove it down their throats, reminding them again and again how rejected and unworthy they are. We need to do the opposite; bring hope into the onslaught of hopelessness that penetrates our surroundings. By our actions and words, we need to let everyone know they’re worthy, accepted, and forgiven.
- Bring Restoration! After not holding people's pasts against them, we should take it a step further and use our gifts to turn what’s negative into a positive! Create opportunities to bring restoration. We need to use our time, privilege, and knowledge to assist them to take steps forward. The slate may be clean, but that's not enough, because often people don't know how to navigate a complex system. Money for a birth certificate, placing someone on a housing database and giving someone a transit card are just 3 of many ways we can bring restoration. I suggest bringing the forgiving and restoring principles of Harm Reduction, Housing First and trauma-informed care into our lives. Doing this will provide hope into what is perceived as hopeless situations!
- A brief side-note: there are times when agencies have to ask someone to leave or have to deny someone services because of policies or law. The reasons vary, but generally it has to do with the health and safety of themselves and others. For example, due to State law, CCO cannot and does not take in registered sex offenders. Yet as an outreach worker, I can try and bring restoration by being creative; I can still offer people services and hope by working with them in a variety of ways and meeting with them in different locations.
- Practice Discernment! Too many folks love to tell us how to do it the right way! What’s imperative is to learn how to discern what’s good and what’s not in all the mumble jumble! Find people you can learn from and “pick their brains”, but also have the courage to resist the “so-called experts”. Many educated experts and politicians in this field who make policies barely come in contact with those experiencing homelessness. Sadly, they often refuse (or pretend) to listen to those who are homeless or have “boots on the ground”, and therefore, their advice is often void of compassion and logic. Listen to those living in the struggle and find people willing to go into the trenches. There’s a lot of good people out there, with a ton of wisdom, who have quietly and humbly served for decades; if we practice discernment, we will learn from them!
- Practice Collaboration! We just can’t do it on our own. The journey from homelessness to housed can be extremely complicated and tricky. No one person, or agency, has all the answers. We need to collaborate by finding partners we can trust and create an informal network of people we know we can rely on. It’s easy to get lost in the chaos of many agencies, so finding energetic and compassionate people within these agencies is so vital. This is where discernment is imperative, because networking with the right people at the right time produces results. The reason we’ve seen so many people move into housing isn’t because we have magical powers, but because we’ve taken the time to build relationships with trustworthy people in vital organizations.
- Listen And Learn! Never assume you know it all! There’s always more to learn! “Know-it-all’s” continually hurt those experiencing homelessness by not being willing to listen and learn! Our arrogance and pride can cause people to remain homeless longer than they need to. Our pride can deeply affect those we are trying to help. I’ve seen this happen too often. A humble simple question to an advisor, colleague or mentor can change someone’s life. Practicing discernment, networking together and being willing to listen and learn all go hand-in-hand; when we’re willing to put aside our arrogance and do these, we’ll see newfound hope and results.
- Accept Failure and Make Mistakes! It’s important to know we’ll screw up and make mistakes. It’s also important not to beat ourselves up when these mistakes happen. We must admit we are also weak and need to forgive ourselves. Due to many people working in this field having a "top-on-down" mentality and flaunting their degrees, too many of them are in denial and refuse to apologize. Such arrogance only results in losing our integrity and those we serve won’t trust us (or respect us). Those experiencing homelessness don’t need to be on the receiving end of more people shoving their privilege and status down their throats. I’ve found that when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and human, real lasting relationships will happen.
- Don’t Take Things Personally! It can’t and won’t be rosy all the time. There are times when we’ll be on the receiving end of a verbal assault. This is never nice, and our immediate response is often to exact revenge, or use our positions of power to make life harder for them. It’s important to remember that when someone goes off at us, it’s often not about us. We are working with people who have experienced so much trauma and they’re having to face the reality that their lives haven’t worked out the way they planned. Being homeless is hard, stressful and even deadly. The journey out of homelessness is complicated, so it’s vital not to take the seemingly personal attacks as personal. I’ve seen it too many times, when people can’t stop taking things personally, they become consumed by anger, fear and frustration. When someone has other people “living rent-free in their heads”, they often sadly end up quitting.
- Be Patient! Perseverance is the key. If we can’t be patient with ourselves, with those “fighting the good fight” with us and with those who are living in the struggle, we won’t last! I’ve seen it too often, those who can’t find patience, get overwhelmed and quit! Those who can't find rest in the chaos, also get overwhelmed and quit. There will be seasons when there seems to be no light at the end of tunnel and all we see is tragedy. Perseverance helps us know that there’s good in the rough, that our journey isn’t over and that hope always exists. As a follower of Jesus, I have hope in the knowledge that His love for those marginalized is far beyond mine and that He laments in their suffering too. His plans of freedom and healing are far greater than mine, and I’m honored to be used by Him. For me, by persevering for over 20 years, I’ve been blessed to see countless miracles. I know people who I thought would never ever get housed, but they proved me wrong and they're comfortably housed today. Perseverance helps us look forward by reflecting on the past, it helps us know hope is not lost and miracles still happen.
I feel honored to live this life. It’s a privilege to live with, work with and assist those experiencing homelessness. It’s not about “us vs them”. It’s not about superiority or domination. If we want to help lift up the rejected and marginalized among us, it’s about putting aside our selfish pride and being willing to humble ourselves, while realizing everyone deserves a home. As a follower of Jesus, I believe He calls and empowers us to bring God’s loving Kingdom to earth, where wrongs will be righted, the oppressed will be freed and the “last shall be first”. If we want to starting seeing the devastating effects of poverty and homelessness erased, it simply starts by “loving our neighbors as ourselves”.