I've chronicled our homeless ministries over the last year. At first it was more quiet compliance and as the year has progressed more and more has been done to advocate for our brothers and sisters living on the street. I have been amazed at how well Wesley Church has dealt with these issues and am inspired by how so many members have been willing to stretch themselves, reach out, learn stories of folks they otherwise may not, and offer a helping hand in a variety of ways.
Some of the ways we have been in ministry over the last year include:
offering shelter under our eaves
purchasing prescriptions for folks who have been hospitalized
Opening bathrooms for use (you'd be amazed at how necessary this is and how few options there are)
Providing hygiene supplies
Sunday morning hot breakfast
Dry/non-perishables when requested
Food bags for people pan-handling
Bible study Sunday mornings
Christmas stockings with everyday items
and most importantly:
The things we do are important, they show love in lots of ways. But it's acknowledging people and treating them as equals that really makes a difference.
We have a few folks that attend worship regularly, and one who pledged membership vows in July. We have worked with the city to try and be helpful in empowering folks. And...we have gone against the city in offering shelter without firm time limitations.
There has been a lot of push and pull and give and take. There has been some controversy, but it has been handled well by everyone involved. In some ways it feels like we are front runners and pioneers in doing this type of ministry within So Cal UMCs (I know we aren't the first or the last but it has been hard to find "models" to follow....) And in other ways, it feels like if we are front runners, our church is WAY behind.
Those are the three steps forward...we have also taken steps backward. Not huge steps backward, but definitely not steps of progress. Instead they have been steps that remind us that we will not solve this problem any time soon and the issues are much larger than us.
1) A newbie that I have seen in the area but who only recently started staying at the church did crack, followed it with marijuana, and then was thirsty and decided a beer was the best way to quench his thirst. He got into a fight with his brother and physically assaulted him at the church and then began threatening the brother and all those around. The police were called but did not arrest him. I was at the church in the evening by chance and ended up dealing with the fallout and told Mr. Newbie that he was not welcome at the church if he was going to be threatening people and hurting those around him. He was wonderfully compliant with me, as everyone typically is, and left right away. I'm sure he'll be back, and most likely will be high when he does. I alerted a police friend and he said he'd swing by to check on things at the end of his shifts.
2) One of our guys (who sleeps at a neighboring church) was literally set on fire in his sleep the other night. I saw him the following day and his burns were bad, but looked tolerable. He refused medical help and I said I'd check back with him. Today was the next I heard word and found out he had to go to the hospital and get a skin graft. I called and talked to him and he was alright. He was uncomfortable and in a lot of pain, but was seeing opportunities for major changes in his life as a result of this (including sobriety and staying in an actual building...something he hasn't done in 17 years).
We have had 4 different men hospitalized in the last 2 months. They have needed help for different reasons, but it has scared a number of their friends. Sometimes for good, sometimes not. But typically it has nudged people toward sobriety, which is a definite good thing. We have one guy who has been sober for nearly 7 months now and he has reconnected with his girlfriend and daughter and they are rebuilding trust and a relationship and hoping for a full reunion, another has 6 weeks sober after being hospitalized twice and nearly dying one of those times. A third I rarely see, but is reported to also be sober, nearly 6 weeks as well. I assume that if he is sober that his family/friends are allowing him to stay with them again and that's why he's not at the church.
Homeless ministry is a mixed bag. Sometimes it's great. Sometimes it's tedious. Sometimes you feel you are making amazing progress and sometimes you feel like nothing will ever make a real or lasting difference. What we are learning is to stay faithful to the call and God will take care of the rest.
As a side note, R and I watched "The Soloist" last night and it was really good. It was fairly long (and felt long) but really was worthwhile. I think it'd be a really good movie to show folks you want to be advocates or to help people better understand the homeless or what it means to help (i.e., that you can't make all the decisions for them, no matter how helpful you think it will be) and that they are people with their own stories and gifts and they need to be understood and appreciated for who they are. If you haven't seen it, it's definitely worth it.