Grace

Posted Apr 01, 2010 by 8 Comments

When talking with people about homelessness, have you ever heard someone say, “Why don’t they just get a job?”  Or have you even said it yourself?  There is a concept floating around out there that if homeless people were to just pick themselves up by their bootstraps and work, they wouldn’t be homeless anymore.

One of New York City’s many homeless women, pushing all of her possessions in a cart.

If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’ve thought this myself from time to time.  Growing up in an environment of, “you can do anything you set your mind to,” it’s hard to see anyone as completely helpless.  For a long time I’ve felt a bit bewildered by the whole thing, but now that I’ve spent some significant time looking at these issues from the inside, I finally feel like I understand.

What I’ve come to realize is this: Homeless people are not completely helpless.  A lot of their success or failure does depend on their own decisions.  But it is a lot harder to break free from homelessness than I ever would have imagined before…

Now, I’ll shoot straight with you here.  I’m a little nervous to get into this.  The last thing I want to do is reinforce any incorrect stereotypes, and what I’m about to say could very well do just that.  So please, hear what I’m trying to say and try to listen with an open heart and mind…

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So, why do people remain homeless?  Why don’t they just get a job?

Well, there are a lot of things conspiring to keep a person homeless once they’ve ended up on the street (a difficult job market, lack of public assistance, etc.), but not all of them are external forces.  Let me see if I can break some of the internal forces down…

Day-to-Day Survival

First of all, there is the strain that comes from the sheer struggle just to make it.

Sometimes the pattern of life on the streets can become somewhat routine.

When someone sinks into the day-to-day survival mentality of homeless life, it’s easy for them to lose sight of the long, hard road to re-entering society.  When you have to struggle each day just to get a hot meal and a place to sleep, life becomes less about finding long-term employment and more about simply making it one more day.

From an outsider’s perspective, it may seem like a homeless person doesn’t want to get back on their feet.  But from the perspective of someone living on the streets, they may have simply forgotten the bigger picture.

Routine

Related to that is the inevitable pull of routine.  We all crave a sense of normalcy… the feeling of comfort that comes from knowing what each day will hold.  And that desire doesn’t disappear when someone moves onto the streets.

What I discovered from several conversations with people at the Bowery is that it is quite possible to develop a daily schedule on the streets.  Over time, this schedule can easily turn into a routine…

Wake up on a park bench, walk over to a local shelter for breakfast, get in line across town for a shower, come back and hang out in a park until lunch at a soup kitchen, etc.  Day after day, the routine continues.  Before too long, that routine becomes normal life.

Like any repetitive activity, there can actually be a sense of comfort that comes from doing the same things every day.  So while it might seem humiliating or degrading to eat at a homeless shelter to you and me, it can actually become a welcome pattern for someone dealing with the chaos of homelessness.

Programs like the one at the Bowery Mission require a lot of hard work and submission.

Baggage

Then there is the emotional baggage that comes along with long-term rejection by society.  Our identities are often shaped by the way other people view us, aren’t they?  Well, imagine how you would view yourself if everyone tried to pretend you didn’t exist… if they acted like you were invisible.

Spending day after day as an outcast, a homeless person must rely on their internal dialogue for personal interaction and companionship.  Is it any surprise that many people living on the streets suffer mental and emotional disabilities?

You and I would talk to ourselves too if we spent so much time alone!  I only lived on the streets for four days, and even I felt a bit of it.

After a homeless person deals with the pain and frustration of loneliness for months and even years, it should not come as a surprise when they lose the will to continue fighting.  For someone in that position, the thought of reentering a community, of reconnecting with society, may be simply too much to bear.

Freedom

Finally, there is one dynamic that I am hesitant to talk about for fear of misunderstanding.  One thing that keeps homeless people homeless is simply this:  freedom.

Would you be willing to give up your freedom?

There is a element of freedom that comes from living on the streets.  You can go wherever you want, do whatever you want.  No responsibilities.  No deadlines.  Sure, you have to live a  bit on the fringe of society, but you have the freedom a lot of people lack.

This so-called “freedom” can become quite a hurdle to people wanting to get off the streets.  Just about the only option for homeless people (especially those addicted to drugs or alcohol) is to check into a program like the one at the Bowery Mission.

These programs require them to acknowledge their weakness, submit to authority, follow a whole bunch of rules and do work like cleaning bathrooms, moving boxes, etc. before being declared ready to re-enter the workforce.  Compared to the freedom they had on the streets, these programs can often feel stifling.

So, many people remain on the streets rather than starting the long, difficult journey through a structured program.

Off the hook?

But that begs the question… Aren’t they just being lazy?  Doesn’t that just prove that they are getting what they deserve?

Well, many of us want the answer to be yes.  If the homeless are just lazy, then we don’t have to care about them!  We don’t have to put our money or our time or our energy into helping.

But the fact is, by living as societal rejects, they are not getting what they deserve.  What they deserve is grace.  The same grace that is offered to you and me all the time…

This is the truly profound thing I have discovered on this trip.  Homeless people are no different than me.  They really aren’t!

Homeless men deserve just as much grace as you or me!

Some of them choose to follow the path of least resistance, but can I really claim to never do the same?  Some of them are slaves to their addictions, but am I any better because my addictions are more socially acceptable?

The only difference between them and me is that I have a hundred different safety nets keeping me from hitting the bottom.  Every time I choose to pursue the easy life, to let my desire for independence take control, I have a family, friends and money to back me up.

Sure. Some homeless people are lazy. But some are harder workers than I’ll ever be!  The fact is, we are all just broken people looking for redemption.

This is why the homeless deserve my love, my respect and my resources.  Even the few that truly are lazy.  Not because they are all  perfect, but because they are also children of God.  And if God can love a lazy, self-serving guy like me, I can surely love the homeless in my life, who have so much yet to offer.

I have been offered a grace that I do not deserve.  Perhaps it’s time to extend that grace to others…

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Next Steps
    • What do you think about this article? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!
    • Think about the ways you could extend more grace to the homeless people you meet. What would that look like?
    • Pray for the many men and women being trapped in homelessness because of the many external and internal forces keeping them there. Pray that they would be willing to submit to the authority of a program like the one at the Bowery Mission.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive Director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.

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Comments

  1. Dave Rod said... 

    Reply

    April 1st, 2010 at 7:14 am  

    Extremely enlightening Barry. I see myself in each of the reasons listed above…routine, baggage and freedom. I crave those too. You are right I am no different and am prone to the same debilitating issues.

    Question…what was it in the guys who joined the Bowery program that caused them to fight against the routine, baggage and freedom hungers? Did they just get sick of their lives? Was it fear that pushed them off the streets? Hope? What made them buck the trends of homelessness and try to reemerge?

    And, would you say that the concept of grace is the most compelling aspect of the gospel to a homeless person?

  2. Jim.M said... 

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    April 1st, 2010 at 7:27 am  

    You have captured the essence of our brothers and sisters living on the street in this series. You should return and keep this in front of us from time to time. Your presence among them has given all of us eyes to see….now what? Can we love like Jesus…or do we just tighten up the blinders and keep walking on by? I restrain myself from some edgy comment here and simply say thank you friend for doing this series so well. Wow.

    What a great story for this day Maundy Thursday.

  3. Jo Nading said... 

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    April 1st, 2010 at 7:46 am  

    Really, really has made me think, Barry. So much “routine” that develops over time of which we are unaware because it “just is” in our own life. Does anyone at the Bowery “recruit” (for lack of better word) people on the street? Dave Rod asked what it is in the guys that decide to join that program – did someone reach out to them? Is it that sense of belonging that we all crave? I would guess that we all have our own “freedom in our strongholds” – and I know how hard it is to give that up.

    Thanks for your honesty and for risking ….risking so much for the Kingdom.

  4. Denise said... 

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    April 1st, 2010 at 8:29 am  

    There’s nothing like the grace of God in our own lives, and there’s nothing like extending that grace to others. We’re all created in the image of God. Thanks for your dedication – allowing us to see homelessness from your inside perspective. The articles and information have been extremely insightful.

  5. Barry Rodriguez said... 

    Reply

    April 1st, 2010 at 8:29 am  

    The incredible thing is that every guy in the Bowery’s program ended up there for different reasons.

    Some came straight from losing their home and job, ready to do whatever was necessary to get back on their feet. Some had been homeless drug addicts for 10 years and had finally reached the end of their rope.

    And although a lot of gospel missions might err on the side of “heaven after you die” or “health and wealth,” I think that grace is the message that truly shows the gospel to the homeless. Grace NOW. In spite of your past. In spite of your situation.

    The Bowery Mission put grace front and center. Always reminding the guys that God loves them for who they are and that he is willing to take them back even when they’ve turned away… grace.

  6. Chris Francis said... 

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    April 1st, 2010 at 8:37 am  

    Thanks Barry. This also reminded my of a passage I have been struggling with lately: Proverbs 30:7-9 (http://bit.ly/b6NWkv) It is so easy for us to be proud of our hard work and what we have accomplished for ourselves and our families. But that is exactly what God doesn’t want. He wants us to be completely dependent on Him. That is something a person who has been homeless could understand far better than I may ever understand it. My hard work is often not a pursuit to worship God with the talents and abilities that he has blessed me with but a pursuit to actually no longer need Him. Thanks for providing another view of God’s kingdom to help understand scripture through.

  7. Jim Hodapp said... 

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    April 1st, 2010 at 9:30 am  

    I like the message Barry. I think the excellent conclusion you came to was one that the trip with Trinity to Toronto, Canada was about – realizing that people are people and we all need each other. We all have our problems, we all desperately need each other’s grace. It is Jesus that empowers us to help each other because without Jesus, we’d be no different in how we treat each other than the savage animal kingdom.

  8. Rob Yonan said... 

    Reply

    April 2nd, 2010 at 8:23 am  

    The key points you laid out, in light of your personal presence among the homeless, go a long way to help me enlarge my heart. Amazing insights. I am still processing the intensity of your first point – how hard it is to make it from one day to the next and not having the capacity to get beyond it. There’s so much there. I wonder if I really grasp the struggle they face. In some small way, I can ‘feel’ that weight by remembering the times our family has walked a long, hard road with a loved one battling a terminal illness. Everything changes. Everything goes into their care and little else can be done. A new ‘normal’ emerges. Thanks for crafting words to help me see.

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