The cardboard sign says it all. I am homeless. Please help. The man, aged beyond his years, looks crumpled and dejected sitting on the pavement. I am on my way to the train station, and my train leaves in 10 minutes. What do I do?
Jesus gave us the story of the Good Samaritan. That was a clear cut case of need—a Jew injured by robbers is helped by a Samaritan man who showed care and concern. But I am no fool—what if this person wants money for illicit drugs? And can I realistically do anything useful to help him if I only see him once? Is it really practical to offer accommodation? What can I really do to be part of a longer term solution?
For a long time my normal response was to avoid people I saw on the streets, especially if I was in a hurry or was conscious of money. More recently my attitude has changed and I look out for opportunities to talk to people on the street and offer help where it is possible. I think it is what Jesus would be doing.
Here is a helpful list of things to do when you next see someone in the street.
1. Stop & listen
I think the key thing that the Good Samaritan did (and the other so called respectable religious people didn’t) was to stop and offer what help he could. I once thought I shouldn’t stop because I wouldn’t know how to help. But we don’t know about a person until we take the trouble to speak with them. Usually people on the street are more than happy to share a bit of their story. Spending the time to talk to someone to find out their situation and showing you care is valuable in itself.
2. Provide what you can
It is illegal to beg on the streets, and it is usually best not to provide money. In some cases the people’s needs may be complex—some will be facing mental health issues or addiction (gambling, alcohol or drug) issues, but it is important not to prejudge. There are ways to provide assistance. For example I have sometimes paid for meals, and in one case I purchased new footwear where a person’s shoes were damaged. It does mean taking time out of your day to do this, but this can also be an opportunity to strike up a conversation and learn more about their situation. You should not be pressured to provide what others are better able to provide. For example, there is a real need for safe accommodation for people on the street but it is not always wise for you to offer this yourself, especially if the person is under 18-years-old. It is okay (and important) that you keep strong boundaries. For example, you should not reveal personal contact information.
3. Where you can’t help, refer to others better able to help
Other organisations are often better placed to meet a range of needs. Many people on the street are aware of these services and are usually able to access them themselves, but it is helpful to be aware of them in case the need arises. For crisis or short term accommodation, Homeground (1800 048 325) or Hanover (9288 9800) are best placed to help those at risk of homelessness. The 24/7 Crisis Centre run by the Salvos can be a useful number to call if a person faces a range of urgent needs (1800 COMMUNITY). In the city, the Community Health Service at the Drill Hall (run by Doutta Galla) opposite Victoria Market can help with physical and mental health issues during the week. The City of Melbourne provides a booklet with information about services available called Helping Out. Wallet-sized cards advertising The Kitchen are available at the Info desk at church. These can be a way to point people to a useful service and also a good way to start up a conversation about our church’s involvement with the homeless.
4. Get informed & connected with the homeless community by volunteering your time
It is helpful to get informed about issues people face on the streets. A few good resources (including books from a Christian perspective) are listed below. But the best way to inform yourself is to financially support and volunteer with organisations helping those in need. I have been involved at The Kitchen drop in centre now for over three years. Being involved as a volunteer at The Kitchen means you get to personally know people in need on a regular basis, in a safe environment with other volunteers, and where you can make a positive difference through providing a meal or engaging in recreational activities like art. The Kitchen, which operates on Saturdays, has periodic intakes of volunteers—you can learn more about it at manyrooms.org.au.
5. Realise that generosity is part of a Christian’s response to Christ
The underlying theme to all of this advice is one of generosity. Tim Keller talks about our generosity being a response to God’s grace to us. The Good Samaritan was genuinely concerned for the welfare of his neighbour in need—he helped the man recover from his injuries, fed and accommodated him at his own expense. Actions of mercy are opportunities whereby we can change our view of the poor—not as a problem, but as our neighbours who have names, families and lives that are messy. To make the differences that will help people break out of poverty and homelessness take time, resources and considerable patience. This means as Christians we need to commit to that effort. City on a Hill, through Many Rooms and The Kitchen, has made a start in doing this, but there are also other agencies that you can support which do this work.
For information about homelessness in Australia, go to homelessnessaustralia.org.au.
A good recent article on ABC 7.30 Report was also helpful in providing information about the issue of begging here in Melbourne.
A few good books below that outline the Christian response to poverty and need:
Chester, Tim. 2004, Good News for the Poor: sharing the gospel through social involvement, Intervarsity Press, Nottingham.
Keller, Tim. 2010, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace makes us Just, Hodder and Staughton.
Keller, Tim. 1997, Ministries of Mercy: the call of the Jericho Road, New Jersey.