Humanizing Homelessness

‘Give to the one that begs from you and do not refuse one who wants to borrow from you”-Matthew 5:42

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”-Matthew 5:44

Homelessness is a critical social problem that has plagued American cities and towns for centuries. According to author Bruce Jansson, homelessness became a increasingly visible issue in the United States in the 1980s after the de-industrialization of manufacturing jobs and the privatization of mental institutions. Since then, homelessness has become a population that nonprofits and churches have been interested in helping and/or serving. Several charities in America raise money to serve people experiencing homelessness, nonprofits have invested resources in advocating to end homelessness on both the state and national level, and homeless ministries remain an integral part of many church’s community outreach efforts.

While many facets of our society have developed and sustained a soft spot for people experiencing homelessness, there are countless myths and assumptions about the population that has impacted the effectiveness of social service and public policy to address the critical social problem. Some of these myths include:
“Homeless people choose to be homeless.”
“I don’t want to give money to homeless people because I don’t want to support their bad habit.”
“Homeless people are dangerous and are likely to commit crime.”

These myths and assumptions are based on both ignorance and bigotry. Our society has long believed that poverty is a result of personal failure and a lack of morals rather than systemic inequalities. This explains why many Christians assume that homeless people always need to be ministered to and taught moral values. It also explains why there is an automatic presumption of guilt for homeless people, which results in the criminalization of the population. Finally, because the perceived face of homelessness is an African American adult, much of the the demonization and fear of homelessness is motivated by racism.

These assumptions and biases of homelessness have an impact on how people, and in particular how Christian people, serve the population. While there are many well-intended ministries and services, there are traces of paternalism and exploitation from those who are serving that further stigmatize those experiencing homelessness. Furthermore, homeless people are often seen as nuisances to avoid (and sometimes feed when it is convenient for our own self-fulfillment), rather than valuable human beings who are struggling against oppression.

We like to help homeless people at our own convenience, but when they are building tents in our neighborhoods so that they can rest, we treat them like terrorists who are taking over own community and destroying our ways of life. Our service towards homeless people is inconsistent, convenient, and bigoted, because we don’t truly care about helping them or valuing them, we just care about making ourselves feel good as Christians. So many of us aren’t concerned with getting to know homeless people, because we feel as if we know everything about who they are because of their condition, which we see as their own fault.

When Jesus talks in the Sermon on the Mount about giving to those who beg from you and later about loving your enemies (Matthew 5:38-48), it means more than just the surface-level charity during the holiday season or the convenient meals that are provided on a few Saturdays out of the month. It means truly giving to others without expectation of return. Furthermore, when Jesus speaks of loving your enemies, he is talking about those who may irritate you and disrupt your way of life and your values. To so many of us, this includes those who are homeless, because of our societal biases and bigotry towards them. What does loving them mean? It means valuing them. It means building a larger table and humanizing them. It means challenging your biases and realizing that your perspectives and assumptions about the population are wrong and that you need to unlearn your paternalism.

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