So much of what I call the “homeless industrial complex” revolves around power and control.
If you look for it, you will find that it is everywhere.
In the food pantry: “Stand here, in this line. Here, take this food, we picked out for you. You don’t like beets? Sorry, better luck next time.”
In the clothing closet: “Wear these clothes I’m handing you.”
At the social services office: “Here’s the timeline for you to meet the goals I have decided are appropriate for you. If you don’t meet them, you will be labeled noncompliant and forfeit future assistance.”
At the shelter: “You must wake up at this time. You can’t come back in the building until this time. You can’t get in our housing program unless you attend this religious service from my religious tradition.”
In the park, when some church folk come out: “You don’t get a blanket unless you say this prayer. You have to tell me about how troubled you are, while I don’t have to tell you anything about me, if you want my help. I have decided I know what is wrong with your life.”
Power and control. Do what I say and accept my choices for your life, and you will be OK.
In other words, give up your agency and choice if you do not want to die in the woods, or exercise your choice and risk being labeled noncompliant and being banned from our facility or program.
Homelessness is first and foremost about loss. One of the things you lose is your right to choose, which severely limits your options.
Therefore, the focus of ministry to homeless persons should be on restoring people to community by increasing their agency and choice.
Sometimes this means watching people use their agency to make choices you wouldn’t have chosen for them.
For instance, the other day I took a grown man to the supermarket to buy diapers for his daughter (who should have been potty trained by now) because he didn’t budget his money right this month.
Respecting his right to choose means getting frustrated because if he would use cloth diapers, he would save a ton of money. After all, he is home all day anyway, and the kid isn’t in daycare.
While at the store, he asked if I would also buy him a Coke because he was out of money and had only been drinking water the last three days.
I wanted to shout, “Practically all I drink is water and coffee! You would save a fortune by cutting out soft drinks!”
Yes, he would save money if he would potty train his daughter. If he would make a budget, he wouldn’t be in a financial crisis. If he cut out soda, he would be healthier and save money. And cloth diapers would not only save him money but be better for the environment.
In other words, he would be better off if he would just do what I wanted him to do.
But he wouldn’t be him.
Further self-reflection reveals that he isn’t the only person I know that makes poor decisions.
Lots of people would retire comfortably if they contributed the maximum to their 401k.
Others would lose weight (and be richer and healthier) if they gave up that daily latte and saved the money instead, or if they ate more protein and less simple carbohydrates.
Still others would still be married if they had focused less on work and more on their marriage.
All of us make bad choices at times, but all of us seem to think we have the right to make them.
For example, we would be upset if our employers docked our pay, without our consent, in order to max out our retirement contribution for us. Even if it’s the smart choice. But we want the right to make that choice ourselves.
Loving your neighbor as yourself means, among other things, wanting your neighbor to have the same rights you have. Like the right to choose, which is hard to do when what you really want is to tell your neighbor what to do.
Self-examination is required for any ministry in which you are seeking to help others “get back on their feet.”
I have found this to be particularly true in ministering to persons without a home.
Analyzing our motives, limiting our power and control, maximizing people’s options and increasing their agency are essential.
Because even though a world run by power and control might be a more efficient world, it wouldn’t be a world any of us would want to live in.
Unless we somehow envision ourselves being the one exercising the power and control. Which says a lot more about us than it does anyone we want to “help.”
Hugh Hollowell is the pastor and director of Love Wins Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. A version of this article first appeared on the Love Wins blog and is used with permission. You can follow Hollowell on Twitter @hughlh.