Homelessness is an issue that has always been on my heart. As someone who at a young age found himself down and out, I can easily empathize with the plight of those who find themselves in this precarious situation. I see Jesus in them. That is why I always look at the way in which they are treated wherever I travel.
In Hawaii, the homeless are treated very differently than the other residents and the tourists who flock the islands week after week. The police seem to fill a role that could best be described as “discourager”. Regulations exist in order to make sure that the beautiful beaches that bring in tourist dollars don’t wind up being littered by a population that is seen as anything but beautiful.
There exists in America a type of lore about being homeless in Hawaii. Much like Southern California, the weather is agreeable to outdoor living and the surroundings are gorgeous. Stories of cities across the Continental U.S. putting the indigent on planes with one way tickets to Hawaii only serve to bolster this view. Hence the need to stem the tide of would be “beach bums” from either reaching Hawaii’s shores or getting too comfortable.
In India, homelessness has no such glamour. One well-to-do resident went so far as to say to me that one could be poor in any other country but India, and have hope. Not only is there no social safety-net, but there is also no ladder to any modicum of prosperity. Those who live in squalor … remain in squalor.
At New Ark Mission in Bangalore, a man the call “Auto Raja” stands in the gap for people whose situation is simply unfathomable here in the U.S. Living in gutters with injuries and infestations, this population is literally a “living decomposition”. If you have the stomach for it, watch this video. It rocks this New York State country-boy to the core.
This brings us to my current city/home-town, Albany, N.Y. Here we have homeless people and people existing on the margins of our society. In the downtown area, merchants fight the flight to suburbia in part by banishing the homeless and street people to side streets and alleyways. They push them back into neighborhoods that are at a safe distance from the hustle-bustle and the prosperity aroma that the City has put on for all to see.
One of the places that the needy gather in Albany is the Capital City City Mission. Once occupying a space only one block from the heart of downtown, it now exists a little ways further into a neighborhood that many would call a ghetto. Granted, the space they now occupy in Albany’s South End is terrific and the programs are a model for other missions across the country, but I cannot help but feel that the move away from the heart of the city fit all too well with the wishes of the business-class.
Hawaii, Bangalore, Albany N.Y., three very different places that exhibit homelessness as a symptom of a larger problem. In the West we want to find ways to “solve the problem”. But whether it’s a tight civil code enforcement, a somewhat marginalized City Mission, or (in the case of India) a Mission coming out of a man whose heart is broken for the down and out, the solutions are like water guns going after volcanos. There is more heat than cool to quench it.
One thing seems certain. Homelessness, while a global problem, remains a local issue. In order to have an impact for Jesus in the lives of the destitute, we must visit them. We must identify with them, eat with them, and simply be with them. Wherever you live, find out where the down and out gather and connect with them. Though often treated differently, they are people just like anyone else. They need to laugh and love. And they need to be told about Jesus personally. They need to know about Jesus who loves them dearly and deeply.
“Whoever puts up security for a stranger will surely suffer harm, but he who hates striking hands in pledge is secure.” Proverbs 11:15
In an age when everyone from pundits to preachers tells us that the best way to fight poverty is on a large-scale, this verse heralds a warning to all of us. As many of us give to innovative micro-lending programs and super-effective child sponsorship programs we mustn’t lose sight of the need for being personal. And we mustn’t see our charity as us lifting others. instead, we must recognize that it is Jesus who lifts, and it is Him to whom we give when we reach out with the capital that he has given us. By giving to Him, and through Him, it is always personal.