For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in ... (NIV)
In 2007, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated that more than 3 million people in America (1.3 million of them children), were likely to experience homelessness in a given year. While difficult to measure, the increase in the demand for shelter beds each year is a strong indicator that homelessness is on the rise, and not only in America. According to the United Nations, there are at least 100 million homeless in the world today.
While on a short-term mission trip to Brazil, the plight of the street children captured my heart. I soon returned to Brazil as a full-time missionary with my focus on the inner city gangs of children. For four years I lived and worked with a team from my local church in Rio de Janeiro, volunteering in established ministries. Although our mission was geared toward children, we learned a lot about helping the homeless, no matter the age.
If your heart has been gripped by the needs of the hungry, thirsty, strangers on the streets, here are four effective ways to help the homeless in your community.
1) VolunteerThe most productive way to get started helping the homeless is to join forces with a well-established operation. As a volunteer you will learn from those who are already making a difference, rather than repeating the mistakes of well-meaning but misguided novices. By receiving "on the job" training, our team in Brazil was able to experience the rewards of accomplishment right away.
A good place to start volunteering is at your local church. If your congregation doesn't have a homeless ministry, find a reputable organization in your city and invite church members to join you and your family in serving.
- Use this Homeless Shelter Directory to find the shelter nearest you.
- This site offers a Homeless Search Engine for locating food banks, soup kitchens, shelters, housing, food stamps and employment services for the homeless and needy.
- Consider partnering with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit, ecumenical Christian ministry that invites people of all backgrounds, races and religions to build houses together with needy families.
One of the best ways to help a homeless person is to show them respect. As you look into their eyes, talk to them with genuine interest, and recognize their value as an individual, you will give them a sense of dignity that they rarely experience.
My most memorable times in Brazil were the all night stays on the streets with gangs of children. We did this once a month for a while, offering medical treatments, haircuts, friendship, encouragement and prayer. We didn't have a rigid structure on those nights. We just went out and spent time with the children. We talked to them; we held their street-born babies; we brought them a hot supper. By doing this we gained their trust.
Remarkably, these kids became protective of us, warning us during the day if they detected any dangers on the streets. One day while walking through the city, a boy I had gotten to know stopped me and told me to quit wearing my particular kind of watch on the streets. He showed me how easily a thief could snatch it from my arm, and then he suggested a better, more secure type of watchband to wear.
While it's wise to exercise caution and take measures to ensure your personal safety when ministering to the homeless, by identifying with the real person behind the face on the streets, your ministry will be much more effective and rewarding. Learn additional ways to help the homeless:
- JustGive.org lists 35 Ways You Can Help the Homeless.
Giving is another great way to help, however, unless the Lord directs you, don't give money directly to the homeless. Cash gifts are often used to buy drugs and alcohol. Instead, make your donations to a well-known, reputable organization in your community. Many shelters and soup kitchens also welcome contributions of food, clothing and other supplies.
- Visit the Charity Navigator to find top rated charities.
4) PrayLastly, prayer is one of the easiest and most positive ways you can help the homeless.
Because of the harshness of their lives, many homeless people are crushed in spirit. But Psalm 34:17-18 says, "The righteous cry out, and the LORD hears them; he delivers them from all their troubles. The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." (NIV) God can use your prayers to bring deliverance and healing to broken lives.
- Consider incorporating these Bible Verses for Hard Times into your prayers.