Grady was sitting in a rocking chair in the church nursery, holding a stuffed animal in his hands, with tears streaming down his face. It was the only quiet place available.
“It’s all gone. I’m 58 years old, and it’s all gone. I’ve lost everything, man,” he lamented.
“I was in the park today, and they were handing out lunch bags. There was a thing of yogurt in the bag, and I got excited, because I like yogurt,” Grady said. “Then I realized they forgot to put a spoon in the bag. I sat on the ground and cried because I don’t even have a spoon! I’m 58 years old, and I don’t even own a spoon.”
When people come to work with our organization, we let them know that homelessness is best understood as a series of losses.
If you become homeless, you’ve lost your home by definition. But you lose things before that.
You lose the ability to pay your rent or mortgage, which means that you probably lost your job.
Job loss brings additional losses – relationships with your co-workers, opportunities for socialization, your title.
If you’re in a relationship, it will almost certainly not survive the next few months.
If you have kids, they’ll likely end up with the parent or relative with the best support system. If you’re homeless, that isn’t you.
When you leave the house for the last time, you’ll take what matters most to you – your granddad’s flag that was on his casket, the photo album of your children, your mom’s ashes – and you will put them in your car, so they will be safe.
But then you’ll lose the car. Either you still owe money on it and it will be repossessed, you’ll park it in the wrong place and it’ll get towed, or it’ll break down and you won’t have money to get it fixed, and then it’ll get towed.
Once your car is towed, storage costs start at $100 a day. You won’t have any money to get the car out of storage.
And they won’t let you in to get the flag, photo album or ashes. They’re gone now, along with everything you didn’t have in your hands when they took your car.
You’re on the streets now and soon you’ll begin to “look homeless.” It’s harder to find places to clean up, and you don’t have anything to change into, anyway.
The soup kitchen will serve you a nourishing, high-calorie meal, but they decide what you’re served.
Have celiac disease or IBS? So sorry. You’re Muslim and don’t eat pork? “Keep the line moving, buddy.” You’ve lost the right to choose.
You’ll be asked to leave if you sit on park benches, linger in McDonalds when it’s cold outside, or sit in the bus station without a ticket. You have lost the right to actually “be” somewhere.
You have lost your friends, job, place in society, house, spouse, kids, car, family heirlooms, clothes and right to even choose what you eat or where you go. All that’s left is your dignity, and that slips by pretty quickly.
It is difficult to maintain your personal hygiene when you’re living on the streets. You’ll begin to smell, and you’ll know you smell. Before long, you don’t even want to be around people so they won’t reject you.
It’s often at this point that people find us. When they’re alone and have nowhere to be. When they have lost all choice and all hope.
Therefore, our ministry is designed to restore loss. And loss has to be restored in reverse.
This is the model that homeless ministries should take, and it is an important lesson for local churches planning to minister to homeless persons.
You don’t begin focusing on housing and jobs, but on dignity and respect. Ask the person their name and share your name. Welcome the person in; give them a place to just “be.”
When serving meals, don’t offer only one option. Give the person the opportunity to select from several options.
Empower them to make food for themselves when possible, and give them the dignity to choose.
“Want to make yourself a sandwich? Here are the options.”
“You can fix your own cup of coffee the way you like it.”
“You can join us at the table here or sit and stare at the wall if that’s what you would prefer.”
By starting with restoring things like dignity, respect and choice, you begin to find ways to restore the other things.
And slowly, brick by brick, you help them begin the hard work of restoration. But this time, they know that they won’t be alone.
Hugh Hollowell is the pastor and director of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. A longer version of this article first appeared on the Love Wins blog and is used with permission. You can follow Hollowell on Twitter @hughlh.