Walking through the streets of towns and cities in Scotland, it’s rare to not see people begging or sleeping rough. To be clear, the definition of homelessness is much broader than this. According to the Scottish government, we can qualify as homeless while still having a home, if that accommodation is unsuitable or impermanent. Clearly, this is an issue much wider than the people we see sleeping on the streets. Members of our society are becoming homeless because of issues like physical abuse, overcrowding, and financial problems, so to help we need to be willing to face a much bigger problem than somebody just lacking a bed.
I am not an expert on homelessness – I have never been homeless myself, and I don’t have a job which works to solve homelessness. However, I’ve had a little bit of experience in getting to know people who have faced homelessness, in the context of trying to show some practical love. But there’s a huge barrier to this work – fear. For me, the main ways this manifests are fear of the unknown, and fear of the undoable.
Fear of the Unknown
I believe that the answer to this first problem lies within the broad definition of homelessness. Once we look into some of the things that can cause homelessness, it is easier to see how someone can end up without a dwelling place. Honestly, homelessness can happen to anyone. All it takes is some unexpected events to occur when you don’t have a social safety net in place.
One example is a young woman I met one evening at Glasgow City Mission’s evening service for homeless people. I had just returned from a trip down under, and we got chatting when I picked up on a vague Aussie accent. She had come along to pick up some food and information with her boyfriend, after having run out of money while moving around Europe, and finding that they didn’t have enough to survive while in the UK. Her story stuck in my mind, because if it wasn’t for the safety net that I have in the form of a family who are always able to support me, I could easily find myself in the same difficult position.
Homelessness is something that is unplanned for, can happen in so many different ways, at any time in your life. Homelessness is not a dichotomy of those who know how to look after what they have, and those who don’t. You shouldn’t be afraid of people who are homeless, since they are probably not so different from yourself.
If you feel the fear of the unknown when facing homeless people (or any other people group) my advice to you is to recognise that fear, and rationalise it. In starting my work with Glasgow City Mission, I was terrified. I started out by volunteering at their service for men, which served around 100 guys in various stages of homing crisis, dealing with substance abuse, behaviour problems and bad relationships. Coming from my nicely padded bubble, I didn’t know what to expect from these guys, never mind how to relate to them!
After some time there, I realised that I didn’t need to be afraid. Sure, you get a couple of characters who might have had too much to drink and aren’t going to relate to you. But I started to see that some of the most important things people lose when we become homeless is not physical shelter – it’s dignity, confidence, and loving relationships. Many of the regulars at the mission aren’t technically homeless anymore, yet they continue to come for the humanity and love that everyone is shown there.
As Christians, that’s something that we should already be working to show. Loving your neighbour is one of the 2 most important commands we are given (Matthew 22:39). So don’t look at people who are homeless and see ‘other’ – see brothers and sisters, whose struggles are a bit more public than our own. And if you still feel afraid… it’s natural to be afraid of the unknown, but it’s not okay to let fear override the command to love. So go on loving.
Fear of the Undoable
Once you get past of the fear of the unknown that can be presented by those without a home, you are faced with a call to action. But we feel helpless and ignorant. To give or not to give them money? Should we engage them in conversation if we’re not going to give them money? Will they use anything we do give them for drugs or alcohol?
We’re never going to get things right every time, but if we act out of genuine compassion coming from the Holy Spirit, we have a chance of making change for good. At the end of the day, we cannot save people – we can only show them a little of God’s kingdom, and help them get there themselves. That means learning a little, and acting in small ways.
I learned a little about helping people who are in poverty from When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett (2009). Coming from a background of ministry among the poor, they give some practical advice of ways that we can help those struggling with their living situation, without maintaining them within it. One of the main messages of their book is to consider the long term benefits of our actions, versus the short. In the case of homelessness and begging, that means you have a choice – you can do something short-term like giving them money, or you can think long term and try to invest in them.
You can act in many small ways to invest in someone. That could mean having a conversation with someone instead of giving money, to find out a little about them and help point them in the direction of services which can help sustainably. That could mean taking the money that you would give on the streets, and giving it to a charity that you think are working for the long term. That could mean buying a Big Issue magazine, and chatting to the vendor – a lot of them are really interesting people who will brighten your day! Or that could mean using your time instead of your money, partnering with a homeless person to learn from them and about them; maybe just encouraging them could change their life.
So, I challenge you to get past the fear of the unknown, and turn the fear of the undoable into something you will do. My usual Big Issue vendor is going to be lacking a customer when I move out of Glasgow, but you look like you could be the new one?
‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.’ Joshua 1:9
Words by Hannah Miller