Humanizing Homelessness

coloredchristianity

‘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…

View original post 501 more words

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.

Altruism?

When I go to church, I often hear about the challenges of being Christian in professions geared solely towards generating wealth and how greed and power are great temptations in fields where profit in the end goal. When Christians often talk about work that can compromise one’s faith, high paying and prestigious jobs are high on the list. When I was in college, I was skeptical of Christians who sought to make more money for the sake of status and power and believed that they had the greatest challenges of anyone in justifying and reconciling their career choice with their faith. That was until I realized how prideful and vain service work can be when it is focused on boosting one’s morale and image.

We live in an age of social media and self promotion in the midst of great social injustice and global disparity. Today, it is easier to show others the good work you are doing and promote your status as a good person. Furthermore, because social justice work and volunteerism are trendy, it is “hip” to promote yourself as benevolent and committed to racial and economic justice. It is easy for someone like me to feel good about myself for working in a field where I can advocate for issues relating to criminal justice, because it’s the popular and trendy thing to do. The problem is that when the desire and enthusiasm for justice and service is primarily based on fulfilling a trend and establishing a status, one loses humility and secrecy, disciplines that measure one’s true intent and commitment.

Whether one “helps people” professionally and/or voluntarily, justice and service work pose unique challenges for one’s faith and morality. While the desire of material wealth and financial exploitation may not be a challenge, the lust for fame, praise, and paternalism will be. If your “do-gooder” work becomes about your own self-promotion and Christian celebrity status, you are no better than a rich man who constantly seeks for more wealth and power for his own compulsion. If your service work is focused on exploiting and demonizing those in poverty in the name of ministry, you are no different from a banker who financially exploits those who are poor. If you advocate for homelessness to collect a paycheck but refuse to acknowledge the homeless person down the street, what better are you than those who are blatant about their disdain for those in poverty? Finally, if your activism work is centered around #blacklivesmatter hashtags and attending rallies, but you continue to criminalize black people for your own safety and comfort, how committed to racial justice are you?


It’s not enough to be a Christian who dedicates your profession to helping others. Furthermore, being in that position does not make you more moral and compassionate than others. Helping professions offer their own unique challenges and temptations to following Christ. I used to think that majoring in Social Work was an example of being altruistic but then I realized that altruism is extremely difficult and uncommon, because rarely do people do things without some expectation of reward. To understand what it means to be altruistic and to serve selflessly, you have to look at the example of Christ.


Whether you are a wealthy businessperson or an underpaid social worker, you must reflect on your motives and intentions for the work you do and avoid the temptations that will make you more prideful and less humble. Furthermore, you can serve and do good even if you make a lot of money and can be exploitative and greedy even if you are on the front lines fighting for justice. Check your intentions and behavior. Do good work. Sit down and be humble regardless of your profession and status.