Faith, Fear, and the Forsaken on the Side of the Road: Christians and the Chronically Homeless at the Crossroads

By Joe Colletti | March 24, 2017 | Comments Off on Faith, Fear, and the Forsaken on the Side of the Road: Christians and the Chronically Homeless at the Crossroads

Faith, Fear, and the Forsaken on the Side of the Road:
Christians and the Chronically Homeless at the Crossroads

 I am the utter contempt of my neighbors
and an object of dread to my closest friends—
    those who see me on the street flee from me.
I am forgotten as though I were dead;
I have become like broken pottery.

(Psalm 31. 11b – 12)

Faith and fear are often fastened in the Christian scriptures when faith is noted as too little and fear is noted as too much. “O you of little faith, why are you so fearful” is one of Christ’s strongest admonitions directed towards his disciples. The Gospels are filled with such admonishments:

  • But He said to them, “Why are you fearful, you of little faith?” Then He got up and rebuked the winds and the sea. And there was a great calm (Matthew 8.26);”.
  • They discussed this among themselves and concluded, “It is because we did not bring any bread.” Aware of their conversation, Jesus said, “You of little faith, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread? Do you still not understand? Do you not remember the five loaves for the five thousand, and how many basketfuls you gathered? (Matthew 16. 8-9); and
  • If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you–you of little faith (Matt 6.30)?

The dynamics of too little faith and too much fear have contributed to chronic homelessness in the United States. Chronic homelessness is seemingly more visible than ever. Tent and tarps after tent and tarps are lining many of our city streets.

For the purposes of this paper, the state of chronic homelessness is defined as someone living on the side of the road for at least a year or more and wounded by a disabling condition that may be physical and/or emotional. Such conditions can be a physical disability, a severe health condition, mental illness, or substance use of alcohol and/or other drugs.

Also, for the purposes of this paper, too little faith and too much fear are defined within the context of forsaking people living on the side of the road. The Parable of the Good Samaritan provides such a context, which you may have heard time and time again. The moral of the story is to “go and do likewise,” meaning do what the Good Samaritan did and do not leave someone forsaken on the side of the road.

The Good Samaritan, as noted in Luke 10.33.35,

  • saw a man who was beaten on the side of the road as did others;
  • took pity upon the wounded man while others passed by on the other side of the road;
  • bandaged the beaten man’s wounds and poured on oil and wine;
  • put the man on his donkey and brought him to an inn to be taken care of;
  • took two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper the next day saying “Look after him;” and
  • stated that when he returns he will reimburse the innkeeper for any extra expense the innkeeper may have.

Two verses later, Jesus said “Go and do likewise.”

To “go and do likewise” does not mean to forsake someone by bandaging the wounds of someone who is living on the side of the road and to then leave them on the side of the road. To “go and do likewise” is to bandage the person’s wounds and to bring them to a place of lodging and to ensure that the person is taken care of. To “go and do likewise” also involves providing resources to help make certain such care is provided.
Too often well-intended people do not “go and do likewise” and leave chronically homeless persons on the side of the road after they bandage their wounds by providing money, food, clothing, and other types of emergency assistance. As a matter of fact, some persons or groups of persons, bandage the wounds of the same chronically homeless person week after week and leave the person on the side of the road week after week. This is not what Christ meant by “go and do likewise.”
            Reactive or Proactive
I have heard many well-intended persons say that they feel powerless when it comes to helping a chronic homeless person find a place of lodging. I believe it is because they are often in a reactive position.
Being in a reactive position is usually the result of not knowing what to do when you encounter a chronically homeless person. Usually the person engages you in order to ask you for money. Your reaction is to decide whether to give the person money or not. You may even ponder an alternative action like buying the person some food instead.
Being proactive is to make yourself aware of other alternatives. However, other alternatives require you to educate yourself and engage other persons. Thus, the crossroad.
Are you going to continue to go down the “reactive” road or down the “proactive” road? The reactive road often leaves the forsaken on the side of the road after you decide whether or not to help bandage the person’s wounds by providing money or food. The proactive road provides opportunities for you to help the forsaken on the side of the road obtain housing just like the Good Samaritan.
            Helping with Temporary Housing
One way for you to help chronically homeless persons obtain housing is by helping them obtain temporary housing through an emergency shelter, though that is easier said than done. Such shelters, if available, will likely have a process to follow in order to obtain shelter such as scheduled times for an intake and assessment. Becoming aware of such shelters, and the process to obtain shelter, is information that you can provide chronically homeless persons.
However, chances are that a chronically homeless person is already aware of the shelters and may have been unsuccessful in getting into the shelter for various reasons. The person may have been successful into getting into the shelter but unable to comply with the requirements to obtain permanent housing for various reasons.
Over the past few decades, some persons who became homeless were able to successfully navigate a shelter and obtained and maintained permanent housing. I call these persons Group A. Group B, however, consists of those persons who were unsuccessful in navigating shelters and wound up chronically homeless and forsaken on the side of the road. Some of them have been homeless for years or even decades.
            Helping with Permanent Housing
The proactive road provides an opportunity to learn about an evidence-based and best practice known as Housing First, which has helped many chronically homeless persons obtain and maintain permanent housing and thus ending their homelessness experience. A Housing First approach involves moving chronically homeless persons from the streets and directly into housing and providing wrap-around services to ensure housing stability. This approach is linked to the provision of permanent supportive housing which provides subsidized housing and appropriate supportive services. This is in contrast to a “housing readiness model,” which emphasizes that a homeless individual or family must address other issues such as substance abuse and mental illness through case management prior to entering permanent supportive housing.
            It Is Time for Real Change
Before, during, or after your decision to give spare change or not, you should take time and contemplate real change, which involves permanent housing and a Housing First approach. We know that the solution to someone’s experience of homelessness is permanent affordable housing, yet too many individuals, community organizations, and congregations provide chronically homeless persons with everything but permanent affordable housing.
The question, where are we going to get more permanent housing that is affordable, is often asked with the expectation that it will be left unanswered rather than answered. It has been left unanswered, in part, because providing enough permanent housing for chronically homeless persons has been left up to the few and not the many.
In order for there to be real change, the ranks of the few must grow. You can help the ranks grow by joining the few and encouraging others to join as well.
By ranks, I mean the small group or committee that likely exists in your community that is made up of those who are daring to bring about enough permanent affordable housing to permanently house those chronically homeless persons who have been left on the side of the road. This group or committee will probably be part of some larger group such as a coalition of representatives from public and private organizations that provide supportive services to persons who are homeless.
This group or committee will likely be helping chronically homeless persons with obtaining permanent affordable housing through temporary housing and/or through a Housing First approach. This is where real change is endorsed and enacted.
So, is your faith too little and/or your fear too much to endorse and enact real change? If so, then the real change needs to begin with you.  May you be reminded of the real change that needs to happen within you before, during, or after your decision to give spare change or not, because the real change may need to happen within you before it can happen to the person you have been leaving on the side of the road.