Homelessness: You Can Make a Difference

What changes in ministry to the homeless have workers seen since the economy took a nosedive? And what can the average person do?

Kerry Brubaker serves as Outreach Ministries Coordinator for Water Street Ministries in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, a city she says has taken less of a hit economically than others. Her office is tasked with prevention—helping the poor to avoid homelessness, which includes building relationships and dispensing bags of groceries.

Her department has seen a 5% increase in requests for food. And whereas most clients in the past walked over from the surrounding neighborhood, recently she has seen more people, including families, driving in from surrounding areas to access services. “Some have told me they never thought they would have to come to a food distribution for help,” Kerry said. “We give away food four times a week with about 140 people coming through our doors each day. We also help individuals with clothing and furniture.”

What has led clients to seek shelter through Water Street’s residential services? In the past year, 32% listed job loss, and 23% listed the inability to pay rent. During 2008-2009, the Water Street Ministry saw a 21% increase in the nightly census, and so far in 2010, the number has risen another 18%.

When individuals graduate from Water Street’s Recovery program, they often continue to stay while they look for a job and accumulate savings for moving out on their own. But graduates are now staying longer than in previous years because they are unable to find jobs.

Another area where the Mission has felt the effects of the economic downturn is in monetary donations. The Water Street Mission is run primarily on giving from individuals and churches. When the budget fell short last year, some workers were laid off. Also, when some employees left for other jobs, their positions were left open. All staff members also took pay cuts.

Despite the difficulties, Kerry finds encouragement in the reminder that “Christ was about serving the poor and giving a cup of water to those in need.”

Bearing in mind that most cities have seen an even greater demand in need for services, how can we and those in our spheres of influence help the homeless?

• Pray that the Lord will open hearts to the gospel, and that He will raise up workers.
• Get involved. Volunteer to help at a mission, food bank, or clothing closet.
• Give. When one of my interns recently asked a worker at Dallas’s women’s shelter what they could use, she was told “Everything!” So clean out your closets. Homeless outreaches can especially use large sizes. And the wish list includes underwear, shirts, pants, coats, shoes, and rain gear. They can also use lightly worn bath towels, sheets, washable blankets, pillows and pillowcases. If you have non-perishable food such as peanut butter and tomato paste, that’s great, too. And they can always use monetary donations and gift cards.
• Throw a pillow-case sewing party. Ask friends to donate cotton fabrics or remnants. Then gather some sewing machines, and set up stations for folding/ironing, cutting, and stitching. Some shelters list “pillow cases” as their greatest ongoing need.
• Have an offering of letters. Every year I require my journalism class to write a letter to an editor. But this year I offered an alternative. After hearing a representative from Bread for the World talk about how they needed people to write letters more than they needed donations, I gave students the option of writing to a political representative about hunger. In their letters students encouraged legislators to seek incentives that would motivate grocery stores and restaurants to donate rather than throwing out unused food–by the tons! The night they turned in their letters, we passed around a basket and each person placed his or her envelope inside as an offering. For more on how to conduct an offering of letters, including sample letters, go to www.offeringofletters.org/2010/act/contact-congress.
• Hold a garage sale and donate the proceeds.

Our Lord had nowhere to lay His head. Remember His words? “Sell your possessions and give to charity; make yourselves purses which do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near, nor moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:33–34). In the words of Elizabeth of Hungary (thirteenth century), “Here, before my eyes, is my God and my King, the mild and merciful Jesus, crowned with sharp thorns; shall I, who am only a vile creature, remain before him crowned with pearls, gold and precious stones, and by my crown mock his?”

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • Sandra Glahn

    What We’re Doing in Tennessee

    Posting for Suzi from Tennessee:

    I read your article on homelessness with great interest. I'm wondering if you have read Prof Steve Corbett's book called When Helping Hurts? It's an excellent read and it being used here in Knoxville as a great resource as we look at various issues where faith-based groups can come alongside various 'issues' (including homelessness).

    Last Summer, I was part of a writing and research team that put together a large resource book called Salt & Light: A Guide for Loving Knoxville. It includes many of the same suggestions for opportunities to reach people in need here in our city.

    If you go to compassioncoalition.org/get-involved (there is a tab on the right called Resources and then 'salt and light resources) you can download some terrific .pdf files that are great models for your community.

    In early May, we did a 'summit' where we invited churches from 105 cities who were interested in putting together a Salt & Light book (specific to their circumstance). Unfortunately, we only had two cities attend (Gary, IN and State College, PA). It included intense workshop sessions and I think the dozen or so people who attended left feeling encouraged and equipped to do BIG things where they lived.

    I just thought I'd let you know about what's going on here in Knoxville — I'm encouraged that you are involved in doing the same things there in Dallas and communicating to others the ways that we call can make a difference!


  • Michelle Attar

    Great ideas!

    Well said, Sandy. Though we know the need grows, often we feel paralyzed about what to do. Your serving ideas,amazingly simple, yet different from the norm, give us direction! Thanks.

  • Sandra Glahn

    Just one thing

    Thanks Suzi and Michelle for your encouragement.  I so appreciate your desire to help.

    Suzi, you have some good suggestions. I know that if every person who reads this does only one thing to help, it will go a long way.

    The Ourcalling.org web site lists what their particular ministry needs–and it's a great sampling of opportunities available for service:

    •Volunteer in one of our classes: Volunteers welcome people to the classes, help with distribution of class materials, serve coffee, engage in group discussions and serve the community as we teach life skills and Bible studies.

    •Mentor: Iron only sharpens iron – if it touches. Our mentoring program is like a “big brother / big sister” for adults. We facilitate one-on-one relationships and will connect you to someone who wants to discuss their situation and get your feedback. Mentors are required to attend an orientation meeting and will have regular contact with our mentor leader.

    •Help distribute resources: As we engage the homeless living on the streets we distribute thousands of blankets, food items and personal hygiene kits. Often we will serve hundreds of people at a time, praying with individuals and sharing the love of God.

    •Help us collect items to distribute: It takes lots of phone calls, emails, and miles to collect the items that we distribute. Some come from partner agencies, local businesses, and churches. Every bag of clothes and pallet of goods need to be sorted, organized, stored and distributed.

    •Help us research homeless resources: We love to connect the dots. Those who need services, often can’t find those who offer those services. Rather than reinvent the wheel, we connect those who have service to those who need them.

  • Ken

    Thanks for highlighting Water

    Thanks for highlighting Water Street, Sandi. They do great work in Lancaster (where I'm living now). Our youth group is raising money to provide Thanksgiving dinners this year.

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