Experience at a Homeless Shelter

Not long after moving away from the Midwest, I volunteered at a homeless and battered women’s shelter in East Texas for about 6 months. In that time I made a handful of observations about how things were run and how these women were being helped. Since I was a psychology major in college and worked in a few challenging situations with troubled college students as a missionary in the US, I had a little bit of experience going in.

The shelter was an old storefront like building and was fully dependent upon donations as a 501(c)(3) organization. They received no government funds, just the help of churches and individual Christians in the area. They were (of course) under funded and the living situation was a run-down sorority type environment, not to mention that it was full of drama. There were fifty beds in the back of the building all in one open room and another ten or so ladies slept on air mattresses and couches. They shared two bathrooms and two showers every day.

While the housing situation was challenging, I was very much struck by how the Lord had provided for them. They had three hot meals a day and all were required to shower routinely. Shampoo, clothes, bedding, and “extras” were all offered for each and every woman for free. Their bed became their closet, shopping cart, and comfort zone all in one. I was amazed by how much stuff they had — stuff that they brought with them off the street and stuff they had collected while there. Some of their belongings they purchased with their own money, but most were given to them at no cost. They had more abundance and possessions than any homeless person you would ever find overseas. They were not in need because the Lord has always promised to meet all our needs. (Matthew 6:31-32)

Their social and spiritual desires were being met as well. With around fifty ladies all in one small space they had plenty of opportunities to share their stories, griefs, and frustrations. Gossip ran rampant: if one woman was having a bad day everyone knew about it. Daily Bible studies led by local pastors gave them good relief from all the spectacles and crises. Everyone gathered in the dining room area multiple times of day to hear someone preach the Word. Sometimes topics dealt with overcoming conflict, pain, and the past. Other times they were taught hygiene, social skills, and responsibility.

As I watched and observed over a 6 month period of time, I noticed there were only three or four out of those fifty who really considered the shelter a short term place to stay to help them recover and deal with their problems. Only these few wanted to get the help they needed in order to start over again and get back on their feet. I began to ask myself: why so few? Why weren’t more women taking advantage of the free and helpful resources that were right there in front of them? Why wasn’t the leadership really pushing these ladies to deal with their tribulations and grow? I’m not naïve in thinking that you could fix there struggles of drug abuse, physical and sexual abuse, illiteracy, major family troubles, marital problems…the list goes on and on.

Where was the desire to contribute to the world or even the environment they lived in? Where was any desire for that matter? And then I began to ask, where are all these women getting money to buy cigarettes, sodas, and useless trinkets? As I listened and talked with these ladies I began to learn that many were on welfare, food stamps, social security or disability. I then began to ask them for their prayer requests and many requested I pray for God to provide via their government appeals for a disability. Some shared stories of claiming disability because they couldn’t read, but when I sat down with them to study the bible out loud, they could read. They struggled given their third or fourth grade reading level, but they could do it well enough.

Why were they praying and asking the government to meet their needs instead of God? I was baffled and frustrated. As I inquired some more I discovered many were being encouraged to apply for disability by other women in the shelter and the leadership. After they received the money I watched what they did with it. Some sent it to the kids they left or had to place in the care of relatives. Some squandered it on useless things and stayed in the shelter for years and years. Few had any desire to leave other than those whose drug addition was too much to kick. Those women just went back to where they came from until another bump in the road forced them to return.

The longer I was there the more and more questions I had. Most who were on disability or Social Security responded that it wasn’t enough to live off of to rent an apartment, pay for cable TV, have a cell phone, get furniture, and pay for groceries. I then asked about seeking employment or rooming together with one of the ladies at the shelter that they trusted. Their answer was they couldn’t get a job because then they’d loose their government check and would no longer qualify.

What is going on here! Since when did the God of the Bible encourage people to stop working? Since when did government take the place of God in providing for people’s needs? Since when did government programs become the Lord’s answer to prayer instead of the people in the Body of Christ loving their neighbor and being that answer? And since when did so-called leaders and ministers of the Gospel start training their disciples to seek worldly authorities for their needs and think that it’s biblical? Where have we gone wrong?

If you look at the Bible, Jesus shows a great deal of attention to the poor and needy of the times. For instance, few of his disciples had any education to speak of and weren’t considered the elite. They were mostly low-class Jews. Some could read and some could not, but all could work and did work. The Word of God was simple enough for these ordinary men to understand, so much so that while they didn’t get it all right, they followed Jesus because they recognized him as the Messiah.

You don’t have to be able to read at a college level or even a high school level to know and understand that God is the giver of all things. He is our provider – not a government or a king. Jesus asked these disciples to give up their work and treasures and follow him. Never once did they petition Caesar to provide financially for their families while they were unemployed. They trusted that God would meet all their needs and He did. How did God do this for them after Jesus was crucified? He did it through the church. It is our job as the Body of Christ to supply for the poor and needy yet we have allowed our worldly authorities to step in and play that role and be that so-called answer to prayer.

This has hurt the homeless men and women like the ones I met and it has hurt the Church. These women now believe the lie that God doesn’t want them to work because if He did He wouldn’t have provided the checks and answered their prayers. It has hurt the Church because we are just holding on to more of our “stuff” because we think we need it instead of giving up our treasures. It has weakened the maturity of Christians and stunted the growth of the poor and needy nationwide.Isaiah 30:12-13 speaks of this clearly.

Because shelters just like this one have trusted in ruling worldly powers and believed the lie that they don’t need to work, they have allowed government to become their oppressor. If these women had absolutely nothing and no government to go to, where would they go? They would get on their knees and cry out to God whether they believed in a god or not. God would prove Himself to them in their times of desperation and show that He is the one true God, the giver of all things. Instead they have chosen to trust in a god that oppresses them and continues to keep them poor. I believe this choice has hindered the effectiveness of this ministry and the women’s God-given ability from to be truly free.

And what about us, those who have much, who have an education and can read? Do we minimize the power of the Word of God and what He could really do in our hearts and the lives of others because we have settled for thinking it’s the world’s job to meet the needs of others? Why have we made God so small and principalities, kings, the rulers of darkness so big? We are as much at fault as the men and women filing out government applications for a handout. We are letting the powers of this world be the definer of freedom instead of our Almighty God. As a result, our ministry to the homeless and poor isn’t as effective and doesn’t bear as much fruit as it could if we truly trusted in God. Christ came to set us free from these evils and this is the freedom we need to teach.