Working at Grace Church means that homelessness is always at the forefront of my consciousness and my ministry. When I arrive in the morning, whenever I leave, during the day or at the end of the day, I encounter homeless people lingering on the streets around the church. It’s fairly easy to pass them by with a nod or a “Good Morning” but it’s just as likely that we will engage in a conversation or that I will be asked for help.
I was asked this week about whether that constant presence and the repeated requests for assistance have made me more callous to the reality of the need I encounter each day. I don’t know. I have heard many stories of distress and hardship and I often jokingly say, “and some of what I’ve heard is true.” We do put up barriers to the depth of the pain and suffering, and as individuals and as agencies, we also set limits to what we can do. Survival requires such measures.
Still, an encounter or a series of encounters can be profoundly unsettling. The desire to help can overwhelm and the reality that whatever we can do–a meal–will not solve the problems.
In the past few days, I’ve read two powerful essays written by people who work with homeless people. Amy Scheer shares her experience working in a women’s shelter, dealing with the needs of women and the necessity of rules to maintain order. How can she offer what little food they have to a pregnant woman without causing conflict with the other women who might be as hungry as she?
James Lang reflects in America on his experience volunteering through his parish with the Interfaith Hospitality Network:
To me, homelessness would mean one more faceless man asking for change on a street corner were it not for those nights I spent (not) sleeping in the parish center; it would mean an article on page four of the daily newspaper; it would mean a pleasant argument about politics with my friends, sitting at a party over drinks and appetizers. As a result of those nights, however, homelessness now means a 5-year-old girl with a ponytail and missing front teeth, knocking on my door at 6:30 a.m. and pulling a fairy wand out of a box of toys someone had donated. Because of those nights, homelessness has a face; homelessness has entered my life.