How Should We Respond to Homelessness?

My Experience with Homelessness

In last year’s census of the homeless, volunteers counted 3016 homeless people in Montreal. In all of Canada, it’s estimated that there are more than 235,000 homeless.

This is a problem.

This—homelessness– is close to my heart. Since the Fall of 2009, I’ve been a part of various ministries involving the homeless. I started by helping a Polish church who went out every second week to give food and Gospel tracts. Eventually, some friends and I began to start our own “Feeding the Homeless” group. Before long– since the Christmas of 2011– we began a Christmas outreach event for the homeless, where we raised enough donations to distribute nearly 100 gifts and 100 meals.

Our goal with our group was to show our churches and the people around us that anyone can start these sort of ministries, that any of us can make a difference in our city and in our world. We did this for a few years, one year gathering nearly 200 gifts and meals.
It was great, and I learned a lot. But all the while there was a tough problem that I kept encountering. We had too many gifts and too many meals, making it hard for us to spend quality time with the people.

In our bi-weekly ministry, we faced the same problem. Every outing we had upwards of 50 meals to give out and only 5 of us– or at most 10– to give them out. Often, when an opportunity would present itself for us to spend a bit more time with a particular person, the stress of giving out all our sandwiches would distract me from giving said person the attention they deserve.

Dealing with Symptoms

I came to realize that our preoccupation with serving as many people as possible held us back from doing anything that could last. We were distracted by symptoms of homelessness. Yes, the homeless are hungry, they’re cold, and many are without a bed; but these are symptoms of larger issues.

If all we’re doing is dealing with symptoms, any difference we think we’re making is actually an illusion, an attempt to ignore the real issue– to temporarily ease suffering, sure, but more so to ease the nudging of our own consciences.

A part of the problem, I believe, is that there are so many root issues of homelessness– so much so that it would take much more than a blog-post to delve into. From mental health issues, to drug addiction, to a loss of family, homelessness is a multi-faceted problem, and I think many of us just don’t know how to respond– so we ignore it, or we respond to the symptoms.

The Way Forward

I’ve heard some say that by responding to the symptoms, by feeding the homeless or giving them what they need for life on the street, we’re enabling them– allowing them to continue in their lifestyle. To some degree, this is true; but no matter what, these are people and people need to eat.

In that sense, I’m not arguing against feeding the homeless; I want people to realize, to be mindful, that tackling homelessness will require more than giving a ham sandwich and a granola bar every two weeks, or a dollar when we have change to spare. It is true; we should continue giving, but we should recognize that we’re dealing with symptoms, symptoms of a problem that is not insurmountable. I suppose in writing this, I’m hoping to catch the attention of anyone who wants to do something about this, and who will one day do something.

If you’re that person, perhaps the best thing any of us can do is to be there for the homeless, putting quality of relationship over quantity of people fed.

Yes, give them socks, food, and coffee, but don’t just give and walk away. Lend them your ears. That’s probably what they need from us the most.

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