The Root of Homelessness: Who is in Charge?
by Les Reading
The purpose of this essay is to provide you with enough background information to be effective in interacting with the homeless population. Working with them is a high and difficult calling but one with profound spiritual rewards … not just for them, but also for you. As you work closely with them you will learn many new and surprising things about them and about yourself.
Who is in Charge?
The entirety of the homeless problem can be summed up in one question: “Who is in charge?” This is a question we must all answer for ourselves because it defines the forces that direct our lives.
If you are a disciple of Jesus then He is central to every area of your life. All has been unconditionally surrendered to Him. He speaks, you hear, you obey. He is in charge. You are not.
You can be a believer in Christ and nominal follower of Jesus yet still be in charge. Aided by countless outside influences - some commandments, expectations, culture, personal history, or social mores - the noise of the external world guides our attention and holds true control. In these cases, Jesus is acknowledged but our obedience is influenced by these outside forces.
The unbeliever makes choices as though he is in command of the trajectory of his life. He may even know the Gospel of the Kingdom, but for now, he is at liberty to do whatever he wants. Often, this results in excuses that justify his poor choices. He decides to do whatever he believes is in his best interest. He is in charge. But as believers, we do not look down on such people, because that is who we once were. We came from among them.
If you are a believer in Christ and a nominal follower of Jesus then you may still be in charge, aided by many outside influences. Some of these are commandments, expectations, culture, personal history, and social mores of which you are unaware but you do anyway. In this case, Jesus is acknowledged but obedience is pretty much up to you under the influence of forces outside yourself.
Then there is the unbeliever. He decides that he is in command of the trajectory of his life and comes up with excuses to justify his poor choices. He looks both directions and decides to do whatever he thinks is in his best interest. He may even know the gospel of the Kingdom but, for now, he is at liberty to do whatever he wants. He is in charge. We do not look down on such people because that is who we once were. We came from among them.
Among the homeless, you will find the outliers of modern society. Your Heavenly Father loves them just as much as He loved you before you became a disciple of Jesus, one whose sole hope and sole reward is in Him alone. He called you to Himself through a difficult path in order to bring you to an existential crisis where you had to decide for yourself, “Who is in charge?” And now here you are. Now it’s payback time with love and wisdom … but not with sympathy. I will explain.
You can approach the problem of the homeless from either of two directions. On the one hand, you can look at the problem as one of sympathy or social justice, taking note of the pain, squalor, and hopelessness and you will take man’s side and blame God. Sympathy says, “How can you do this to me?” and “I deserve better.” When you adopt this stand then you are in a dispute with God that He is unfair in his dealings with men. You have decided that you are in charge.
On the other hand, if you surrender your opinions and offer yourself to your Heavenly Father as His servant, willing to seek Him alone and do His will, then He speaks, you hear, you obey, and He responds. He is in charge. You are His agent, ministering His will to the lost. This is godly compassion.
When we encounter a homeless person for the first time, our sense of “fight or flight” takes over and we ask ourselves, “Is he a victim or a predator?” But the real question is, “Who is this person? What are the forces, circumstances, and decisions that have brought him to this place? What does ‘love’ look like in this situation?” Moreover, what does ‘love’ look like to those who are homeless?
To help us understand how to best understand this person. we now divide the homeless population in four broad subcategories:
1. The impaired
a. Those who are homeless because of illness, injury, or mental impairment.
2. Victims of others
a. Those who suffer abuse or abandonment from their family.
b. Those who suffer abuse or abandonment from the community.
3. Victims of themselves
a. Drug and alcohol abuse.
b. Criminal behavior.
d. Unrealistic expectations.
e. Codependent victimization
4. Victims of the misfortunes of life
a. Cost and availability of housing.
b. Loss of a job.
We prefer to isolate these categories and deal with them separately. Usually, however, a homeless person presents a mixture of these. He has not one trauma, but many.
Homelessness has been with us for a very long time. It is in the DNA of a free and mobile society. Yet the homelessness we now see is different. It is ruthless and intractable and cannot be reversed by simple means. Before now, homelessness was largely about your circumstances. Our new and modern form of homelessness is about who you are.
As for us, our currency in the streets is “hope” and you are now in the disaster recovery business. There is little hope to be found in the streets. You must bring hope with you, knowing that you carry the presence of Christ and that you are a light in a very dark place.
Each of us has a life story. Our actions and attitudes have roots that extend back to events in our lives that we barely remember and hardly understand. Taken as a whole, much of who we are depends on the influences of others, the circumstances of life, and the decisions we made concerning them. We were made to endure trials, but not all trials work out the way we hoped. Along with life’s trials, we carry with us a collection of life’s failures from which we should learn and grow.
Sometimes we will experience life’s disasters; circumstances from which we may never fully recover. So we develop our own tools in order to “live life on our terms.”
The flow of life’s trials and disasters usually follow a historical pattern:
1. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE)
2. Unhealthy or untested relationships
3. Failure to find our place in society
4. Trials and experimentation: drugs, crime, broken relationships, etc.
5. Decisions based on an unrealistic view of the world
6. Denial of our mortality and of a loving God.
Nevertheless, you can be confident of these five things:
1. They didn’t choose to become homeless. It was a chain of events they did not see coming.
2. They don’t want to continue to be homeless and they may even have hope for a better future.
3. They don’t know how to become “no longer homeless.”
4. They are making decisions out of desperation and under the influence of others.
5. Because of their suffering, they may even think that God doesn’t love them
The homeless are coping with difficult situations using whatever personal tools they may have developed. If it were just a matter of providing them with more resources and better tools, their problems might be easily solved. But more and better tools do not answer the fundamental question; “Who is in charge?”
There are many ways to become homeless. One way is to stop paying your rent, your taxes, your bills, your health insurance, or stop meeting with your parole officer. Do enough of these and homelessness will quickly find you. In contrast, becoming “no longer homeless” requires intentionality, determination, some skill, and good advice from trustworthy people. In this case you actually have to be willing to do something to change your life. You cannot remain passive and assume that your situation will correct itself. The issue here is “will” and the question is, “Who is in charge?”
It is not poverty or lack of housing that creates homelessness. These are symptoms, not causes. The real cause is deeper; it is what they are or have become as the cumulative result of the decisions they made and the circumstances they endured. They helped make themselves who and what they have become. At the root of the matter, their attitudes and decisions are their own.
To exit from homelessness, they need to develop a new home and a healthy, new community. At a minimum, this involves meaningful and accountable relationships with trustworthy people who are not homeless. This is where you come in.
To become “no longer homeless”, the homeless person needs the following:
1. A trustworthy friend
2. A safe home
3. A purpose for their life
4. Hope for a better future
Your role in this matter is to be a friend, maybe even the only true friend they have ever known.
Homelessness is lethal. In the United Kingdom the life expectancy of a homeless man is 45 years compared to the male average of 79.4, a lifespan reduction of 34.4 years. For a homeless woman the numbers are even worse, with a life expectancy of 43 years compared to the female’s average of 83.1 years. That’s a lifespan reduction of only 40.1 years! The lifespan reduction numbers for Los Angeles (where we have better statistics) is only slightly better at 28 years for men and 35 years for women.
These significant reductions in life expectancy are not only about drug use. For the most part, homeless people die from the same causes that the rest of us die from: heart disease, diabetes, cancer, strokes, infections, etc. Life on the streets is both difficult and dangerous.
If you are walking in obedience to Jesus then you have something to give … and that is yourself. Their poverty is filled with isolation, fear, guilt, and shame. Your job is to be a friend to the friendless. Treat them with respect and dignity and allow Christ to manifest himself through you.
They need a friend … someone who will treat them like real human beings, not as a project or a classification, but as a human who has deep and complex needs. All this must be done without inviting a spirit of entitlement or condescension.
Interestingly, we can measure the weight of external influences using the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (the ACE Scale, appendix 1). This 10-question test provides a surprisingly accurate estimate of whether or not a person will become homeless. It is a measure of “how much baggage you have loaded up in your trunk.” However, while it is descriptive and may even be predictive, it is not prescriptive. It can tell you that you have issues, but it does not tell you what to do about them.
Here are the ACE score statistics for the for the general population alongside the probability of becoming homeless:
As you can see, a person with an ACE score of 8 will have a 33.3% likelihood of becoming homeless. What about the other 66.7%? These, having essentially the same personal issues, did not become homeless. What do they have that others do not?
What they have is the spiritual strength to overcome the external issues of their lives by relying on five key qualities:
1. The ability to trust in someone other than themselves
2. Dependence on persons they trust
3. Meaningful relationship with those they trust
4. Obedience in love to those they have given the right to speak into their lives
5. Gratitude. Simple gratitude.
These are “The Five Faces of Faith.” Here is a practical definition of faith that is unambiguous and faithful to the teachings in the Bible. At its core is absolute trust in your Heavenly Father as demonstrated by everything Jesus said and did in the Gospels and the example he gave us to follow. It is the message that if you want to know Jesus, then you must trust Him. You must live how Jesus lived, pray how Jesus prayed, and love how Jesus loved. Jesus himself is the message.
These personal qualities are developed through meaningful relationships and accountable communities. If there is no change in the interpersonal life of a homeless person, then meaningful change is unlikely. People do not fix themselves: they require the help of “significant others.”
“Without a meaningful relationship, nothing will change.”
Who have you given the right to speak into your life? Are you going through life on your own strength? Do you have the support, encouragement and wisdom of others who hear from God and whose views you respect? Are you accountable only to yourself … or are their others in whom you trust and depend?
Most people have difficulty answering this question either because they either never thought about it or they are saddled with their own sense of independence and self-sufficiency.
Our life story is a testimony that, as we develop, we embrace the ideas and behaviors of others and make them our own. We embrace what seems easy and pleasing to us and reject the rest. Everything about us radiates what we have received from others because, at some point, we trusted them and integrated their values and opinions as our own. Our entire life is a continuing education on who or in what we place our trust. We live in community.
Do not expect to readily find trust among the homeless. Their trust in others may have faded long ago. Your role is to help rebuild a new foundation of trust based upon your honesty, dependability, love, and vulnerability. Earn the right to be heard … not as one of them, but as someone who has proven themself to be safe and who cares about them far more than they care about themselves.
You must always remember the following:
“Do not do for them what they can and should do for themselves.”
When you develop a meaningful relationship with someone in need, you must guard against promoting an attitude of entitlement. A sense of entitlement is not good for you and it is definitely not good for them.
Entitlement usually develops along the following lines:
The first time you help someone in need, you generally encounter gratitude. This is normal and healthy in a close personal and accountable relationship. The dignity of the recipient is not at risk.
If you continue this behavior, some will begin to anticipate it in advance. They begin to take you and your aid for granted. Their sense of gratitude is diminished. Your relationship is less personal and there is less accountability because, at the root of the matter, the dignity and the mutual respect of both you and the recipient is being gradually replaced.
With continued repetition, your help be expected by those in need. You are beginning to be known on a broader scale and taken for granted. Many will take what you have but there is no relationship being developed. It is now a routine with little interpersonal communication.
At this stage, a sense of entitlement has developed on the part of those you have befriended. Whatever you have is now seen as a personal “right” and there is no meaningful relationship. The dignity and the mutual respect of both you and the recipient has now been fully compromised.
Dependency goes beyond entitlement. Others now rely on your consistent provision. This is an example of government intervention. It is provision with neither relationship nor accountability. There is no honor or dignity here … only a deep underlying sense of personal shame.
We do not discourage people from giving to the homeless but we do offer some guidelines:
1. Do not carry money with you and do not offer money to the homeless unless you have a clear directive from the Lord.
2. Do not repeat your giving on a fixed schedule. Be spontaneous and unscheduled. Do not hesitate to be unpredictable.
3. If you are giving, let it be practical things for personal use. There is a list of recommended items you might give in appendix 4.
4. Never loan money of any amount. Give if the Lord tells you to do so, but never loan.
5. Do not make promises.
If they need clothing, take them to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. If they need food, take them to a suitable place and let them choose whatever they want without prompting. Leave room for them to choose for themselves because. Their personal dignity is at stake.
Modified Engel Scale
We also present a tool to assess a person's spiritual environment known as the Modified Engel Scale (see appendix 3). This tool helps you to align yourself with the spiritual reality of the person you are talking with. It is a valuable tool that should be referred to often until it becomes nearly automatic.
What to Talk About
People will discover who you are by the questions you ask. They learn even more by how you respond to them … by your honest and unguarded responses.
The best questions are open-ended and start with the phrase, “Tell me about …” Click here for a more structured version that is useful for longer interviews. We recommend you review these questions and form an idea of what you want to say in advance.
In this work you will discover significant personal rewards in ways you did not expect.
The question is, “How do you reward obedience to your Heavenly Father?” Here, even the idea of a reward for obedience doesn’t quite fit. Obedience might be acknowledged, but it is expected.
Nevertheless, there is a consistent reciprocity concerning the Five Faces of Faith. Your Heavenly Father openly rewards those who are obedient, those who serve Him at His pleasure.
1. Your relationship with your Heavenly Father will change.
In the Kingdom of God there are spectators and there are participants. Your obedience marks you as a participant and not just an observer. You will experience a profound improvement in the depth and quality of your relationship with Him. He earnestly desires to be in a close, personal relationship with each of us.
2. Your prayer life will change dramatically.
Praying from man’s point of view is good and is heartily encouraged. Praying from God’s point of view, however, changes everything. Your hunger for the heart of your Heavenly Father marks you for all time. Your prayers will become clearer and more intimate.
3. You will be changed.
In your simple obedience, all the powers of heaven stand behind you. You are changed by the ongoing presence and power of God acting through you. It is your testimony. As you walk in obedience, His anointing and His power never leaves you.
Those of us who have been homeless or have been with them have many stories to tell. We also have different personal approaches suited to our own temperament. In time, you will create your own. Please ask questions of all those you meet in this training in order to benefit from their experience.
During your time with us we will explain and model behaviors that have worked for us based on our own personalities and preferences. At the end of the matter, you will develop your own strategies … and we are pleased to help.
We have additional literature to keep you informed as well as a number of videos that will prepare you for working with this population.
Thank you for joining us in this important work in Redding. We are grateful to have you along.