Below are four sections of a workshop taught by Pastor Steve Kimes of Anawim Christian Community, who has been working with the homeless for 22 years. It is called Introduction to Helping the Homeless. It was taught in St. John’s Christian Church in Portland Oregon. It was produced by Mary Anne Funk.
The first section is giving some basic information about houseless folks in the United States, with special time focusing on how folks become houseless.
The second section is about a neighborhood’s response to the homeless and why there is often negative responses to even good people on the street:
The third section is giving a basic overview of essential ways in which the homeless should be helped.
The fourth section is specifically about the St. Johns community and the homeless needs there, with a special encouragement to begin day shelters!
Marie lived with him for years. Sometimes he would get angry and lash out, but it was only occasional. The yelling wasn’t too bad. And the bruises and scars would heal up. The worst part was the embarrassment when her friends would ask about him. She would deny his abuse every time, even if it didn’t make sense, like when a handprint showed up on her face.
It was different when their daughter was old enough to be his target. Three years old. Marie would defend her, even pick Rose up at times to prevent him from harming her. Marie warned him. She told him that if he put a hand on her, then she would leave him. He finally did. So she left. She wouldn’t allow her daughter to be exposed to the trauma that she endured. Yes, now she saw it as trauma. She felt the fear that she had never felt for herself. So she walked out.
She knew better than to call his family for support. In their eyes, Jack was perfect, a wonderful son. So she called her mother. “Marie, you need to submit to your husband,” she was told. She called some friends. “Don’t you have some money set aside?” “I’m sorry, but we don’t have any place here.” She called the Women’s Crisis Line, and was told that there was a waiting list for all the domestic violence shelters. Probably the soonest she could get in is in three months. She had nowhere to go.
After two days on the street, she contacted a social worker with Adult and Family Services. He was skeptical about her story, but agreed to give her a motel room for a week. After six days, she has contacted everyone she knows, everyone in the book they gave her. She called a service network, but the lines are always busy. She has one more night.
There are many reasons why people become homeless. Domestic abuse is the number one reason for women with children. Some people live on the street or in their cars because they lost their job or received a “no cause” eviction. Only 9 percent of people become homeless because of addiction issues. Only eleven percent become homeless due to mental illness.
The one cause of homelessness, for every person who ends up on the street, is a lack of a support network. Many people lose their housing because they lost their jobs or other reasons, but they don’t become homeless. That’s because they have family or friends who support them enough to give them a place to stay until they can get on their feet. Most people who have severe mental illness don’t become homeless, because there is a foster care system, and because many family members care for their own.
There are a few homeless who are on the street because their criminal behavior make it impossible for them to live with. But the majority of homeless are there because they have no one to turn to, no one to give them a place to live, even for a while. This is the only real cause of homelessness.
In our worship, people are allowed to speak up in the middle of the sermons. I had just made a statement, “As opposed to the misconceptions of many who are housed, homeless people do not choose homelessness as a lifestyle.”
As is typical, Theo speaks up, “I did.”
“Really? Because if you did, you’d be one of the few.”
Jeff, another homeless man spoke up, “You mean that you sat down one day and thought, ‘You know what? I’d really like to be homeless.”
Theo laughed, “Well, not exactly in those words. I raised fifteen kids for twenty years. All those years I worked, paid rent and paid bills. Frankly, I was tired of it. I’m happy with my life right now.”
Jeff replied, “But didn’t you tell me that you were forced to be homeless after being released from jail? That you had lost your place and your job and you couldn’t get them back, even if you tried?”
“Well, that’s true.”
I chimed in again. After all, it was supposed to be my sermon. “So did you really want to be homeless? Or did you find homelessness to be the best option after the other options were exhausted?”
“I didn’t start thinking that being homeless was a great idea, if that’s what you mean. But I came to that, eventually. And I’m happy. With how things turned out.”
Most people, when they make the statement, “Most of the homeless want to be homeless,” haven’t actually spoken to many homeless people, or checked in depth what they actually want. It is true that there is a percentage of homeless people who are content with their life and they don’t want to give it up. There is another group that find the idea of an apartment confining, or even triggers anxiety being locked in a box, surrounded by other people they don’t know.
But that is different than saying that homeless people chose homelessness. When a person begins their journey in homelessness, they are frightened, and it is the last choice they would want to make. Most homeless folks admit that they never thought they would be homeless. Some even feel that homelessness was a judgment on them because they looked down on the poorest themselves. Being homeless themselves was the last thing on their mind.
Although there may be a few exceptions, it can be said that no one chose homelessness, at least at first. It isn’t a lifestyle that anyone desires, especially women, although some grow used to it and learn to appreciate the freedom it gives.
Mark is an organized, clean young man. He also happens to be houseless. He created a large tent area with a BBQ grill, a separate space for friends to stay over, and decorated his area with flowers and ribbons. Really nice. Until someone burned it down.
He saw the smoke from a distance and as he got closer he realized that it was his camp. He called 911 and the fire department immediately came over. When they saw the distance it was from the road, the fire department turned around and left Mark to watch his living space and all his possessions go up in flames. In the next few days, he combed through the space and found pretty much nothing to preserve.
He got another tent from a local pastor and a sleeping bag. Then he began working on his space.
He cleaned it off, created space for a new tent. He built a legal campfire. And once all the basics were in place, he created a home. A garden came together from the ashes, hidden from the world, a secret space for Mark and his friends. One of the most beautiful camps I’ve ever seen.
Is Mark homeless? Not at all. He cared for his space so much that he cleaned it and preserved it and beautified it. When he leaves a place, he tells us that he’s “going home.” He has a home, a space that he loves and is loved.
Is he houseless? Not exactly. He has a tent he calls his house and he has some comforts. He isn’t contained in a box, but he has as much a home as any Bedouin as lived in a tent.
But Mark is still vulnerable. The property is not owned by him. As soon as a city council member with a desire to move homeless out gets a whim, Matt will have to move and he will have twenty-four hours. When we speak of “homeless folks” or “houseless people”, we are not speaking of people who lack the comforts we call home. They lack the security that they can remain.
Every couch surfer called “homeless” might lose their piece of fabric at any moment.
Every person who lives in an RV on the street is homeless because they are not permitted to park overnight anywhere.
Every teenager who is thrown out of his house by his parents and can’t go home is vulnerable in this way.
Every woman and her children who are on the run from domestic abuse and has nowhere to stay is the same.
Every person who has to park in front of a friend’s garage because they were evicted from their apartment are the same way.
Most people haven’t been homeless as long as Mark. But they all are in the same category. They are all threatened.
A little girl of about 5 years old asked if she can sit next to me on the bench. Without waiting for answer climbs up.
A few minutes pass and she tells me her name is Angela. “That’s a pretty name,” I said.
Then Angela takes my hand looks me straight in the eye and says in a matter of fact voice, “My mom is in jail for selling and doing drugs. My dad is dead. He died in some war in the Middle East I live with my Grandma but my Grandpa is dead. Grandma is really old and is sick, if she dies I will have no one, would you be my daddy?”
About that time a woman on a scooter with oxygen tanks rolls up. In a gruff almost angry voice asked if she has been bothering me?
“Nope not at all.” She gives the little girl a nasty grimace “You see I am a Pastor, and she was just sharing a prayer request for the desire of her heart. And I am going to have a little chat with God and see if we can’t make her prayer come true.”
Grandma scrunches up her face and spits out her words, saying, “I don’t believe in God.”
“Well that’s too bad, but ya know what? Your unbelief doesn’t count, this is between Angela and Me and God.”
Angela’s face was grinning ear to ear and I got a hug. Then Granny croaked, “Come, it is time to leave.” And with a wink and a wave they left.
At that time my number was called and the service manager comes up and says, “You really a Pastor?”
“Yup,” I said.
“Think God was listening?”
“He was standing in the room taking notes the whole time.”
The service manager chuckles and says, “So how can I help you?”