Being a Better Friend to the Homeless

I swiped my metro card and went through the turnstile. Trains on Sunday nights are infrequent, so as I waited I put my headphones in and started walking down the platform. Lost in thought, I passed a homeless person. I wouldn't have noticed her, truthfully, if it weren't for the smell radiating from her shopping cart. I got to the end of the platform and the train hadn't come, so I walked back, passing her again. As I went by the second time, I felt that tug at my heart, the one that says, "You should talk to her." So I turned around and sat down. "Hey. I'm Luke."

With the broader church's current interest in the poor and marginalized, there's a strong push to talk to homeless people. This is a good thing, but we need to be careful how we have these conversations. I often hear people encouraging others to ask a homeless person for their story, to help them feel valued or known or something like that. While I think the intent is good, I'd suggest that you pause for a moment before you ask a homeless person to tell you their story.

While the causes for homelessness are varied, they all have one thing in common: they all create shame. Job loss, eviction, divorce, substance abuse, a criminal record, or something along those lines are often present in a homeless person's past. In different ways, our society sees all of these events as failures, which then translates to us seeing homeless people as failures as well. So when you ask a homeless person for their story, you can unknowingly force them to define their lives by their failures, and make them talk about the things that they feel the most shame about. 

Think about your own life and the things that cause you to feel shame. It might be failed relationships, sexual sin, infertility, lack of a career, or your body type, just to name a few. Now imagine if a rich stranger walked over to you, and within a minute asked you to tell him everything in your life about one of these topics. You'd be appalled. But this is what we do to people when we ask the marginalized to tell us their story.

When you force someone to share their story on your terms, you create a relationship where you're superior and they're inferior. They're made to talk about things that they find painful, while you get to listen from the comfort of your good life. When you meet a person on the street or at a soup kitchen, they don’t need someone to remind them of the problems in their life. Instead, they need someone to believe in their God-given worth as a human being. They need someone who sees the equal value that every person made in God's images has. Someone who refuses to define an equal as a person who has the same lifestyle or background as they do.

So how do you do that? It can be difficult, but it starts with the question, how do I treat this person as my friend? You would never pry into the hurt of your friends' brokenness. The best way to develop a friendship with a homeless person is to find topics that interest them but allows them to not have to talk about themselves. A great topic with men is sports; I've never met a homeless guy who doesn't have an opinion about the Knicks. And with women, it's a little trickier, but if you can perceive that she may be a mom (in my experience most are), letting her talk about her kids or grandkids can bring such joy. And if you're eating a meal at a shelter with them, you can always talk about how you like the chicken or how you're looking forward to the dessert. These questions might seem simple, and you may have different ones, but the key is to talk to them like you would a friend.

And when you treat someone as a friend, with love and respect, they often become comfortable enough to share some of their hurt and pain. I was eating with a man at a church meal for the homeless, chatting about things, when he blurted out, "I don't know how this happened. Last year, I had an apartment and was working for a recording studio, and now I'm homeless." He then went on to tell me the story of how his life had fallen apart. At that point, all you can do is listen with empathy and affirmation. "Man, that's really tough." He didn't need my money or my sympathy; he needed someone who understood that his homelessness didn't take away his humanity.

Last night, as I sat down next to the homeless women, she looked up, surprised. "Oh hey, I'm Chris," she answered. After we exchanged pleasantries and I gave her the fifty cents in my pocket, I noticed twenty tangled strands of green beads in her cart, so we started talking about the big St. Patrick's Day parade that happened last week. By the end of the conversation, she'd told me that she'd lived in New York City for twenty years, having grown up as a military kid in Paris. It turned out she knew a little French, and as my train arrived, I was able to tell her how cool it was that she could speak French growing up. As my train took me home, I thought about my butchering of the French language during a recent trip to Paris, and I realized she wasn't just my equal anymore, but she was now my superior.

Homelessness is difficult to solve, and I'm not under the impression that I made some monumental change in this woman's situation. But I want to encourage you to see people as people, regardless of how they look. At life's core, we're to value people not for their possessions or their lifestyle, but for their inherent God-given worth. That's hard to do, but it becomes possible when we think about how Jesus wanted to spend time with us even in our brokenness and stench. So let's not make homeless people tell us how broken they are, as if they're any worse than us, but instead treat them as friends who we respect and honor.