How should we help the homeless? Sometimes I give them money, sometimes I buy a sandwich for them, sometimes I just stay and chat and try (and fail) to share the gospel. But that all seems so temporary and not ultimately life-changing. What do you guys do when you hear: “can you spare some change?” (edited for clarity)
Your heart to help what Jesus refers to in scripture as “the least of these” is an awesome thing. In fact, in Matthew 25, Jesus says it is one of the most important things about being a Christian. The question you are asking is the exact right one: what is the right strategy to do the most good?
For the most part, the homeless population in America falls into one of two categories: either struggling with addiction or suffering from mental illness. There are some people with cardboard signs who basically treat that as their job (hustling), but that is a much smaller number. The sad truth is that some change or a sandwich is not going to address those root problems, and someone who is high or in a shaky mental state is not in a position to hear and understand the gospel.
Addiction and mental illness are big problems that require extensive training to address well, and can only be solved if the person is interested in solving them. So the best answer is to point them towards people who have that expertise. If you live in a large enough city to have a visible homeless population, then there are almost certainly organizations (Christian or secular) who focus on helping the homeless.
Here in Chicago, there is a place called the Pacific Garden Mission, and some other great ministries that focus on the homeless. I got in the habit of carrying business cards for these kind of places. So if someone asks me for money, I can instead give them details on a place where they can get a meal and a bed tonight, and get some longer term help too.
That technique also stops you from feeling like you are getting ripped off if the person is on the hustle, and does more good in the long run if they are not.
One last note: people who are addicted and people with serious mental illness are, as a group, less predictable than other people. I am not saying they are bad people or necessarily dangerous. I am saying I wouldn’t necessarily advise sitting down with random people on the street, from a pure safety standpoint. Again, pointing them towards a facility that has resources allows you to offer real help, and a kind word, without having to put yourself in a bad circumstance.
If you gave everyone who asked you for money every cent in your pocket every time they asked, it would not solve anyone’s homelessness problem (and might create your own). Pointing people towards experts who can give them real help is the best thing for all involved. And, if you have a heart for working with folks who are down on their luck, places like that are always looking for volunteers with a heart like yours.
-Matt from The Bridge