The Challenges of Homelessness

February 7th, 2014

I lived in Chicago for a few years. One evening when my friends and I went into a taco restaurant, we passed a young man standing near the entrance who appeared to be homeless but was not panhandling or begging. During my meal, I could not shake the sense that this man needed dinner and that I needed to get it for him. After the meal, I purchased a bag full of tacos and offered it to the man as we left. He expressed his gratitude, and I smiled. I do not remember what he said or what I said, but I remember my friends being shocked and one saying, “I wish I had thought of that.”

What does a homeless person look like? When we think of “the homeless,” we have a tendency to think of those in a chronic homelessness situation. We picture someone who has not bathed, wears tattered clothes, and wanders the street aimlessly. We assume they are alcoholics, drug addicts, mentally ill, or war veterans. However, only approximately 18 percent of people living without a home face chronic homelessness, and nearly 82 percent are transitional or episodic. This population includes people “crashing” on friends’ couches and families between homes. In other words, a person without a home may look different than what we have come to expect.

The Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress includes demographic statistics on the homeless population in the United States taken one night in cities across the country. In January 2013, 610,042 people lived without a home. Approximately 36 percent were homeless families. Of those, 58 percent were children. Homelessness affects all races, sexes, families, and individuals in all regions of the country, including urban and suburban areas.


According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, the two major causes of homelessness are a lack of appropriate housing and poverty. Increasingly, the United States’ economy relies on lowpaying, minimum-wage jobs without benefits. Workers settle for less pay when avoiding unemployment. Another factor that contributes to poverty is a loss in public assistance programs.

While lack of housing and poverty may be logical causes for homelessness and may be the first causes we consider, other causes may surprise you. The National Coalition for the Homeless also lists lack of medical care, domestic violence, mental illness, and addiction as factors for homelessness. Someone who suffers a medical trauma could lose his or her job, not be able to pay housing bills, and eventually lose his or her home. Battered women and children living in poverty may be forced to choose between homelessness and an abusive relationship. In 2005, the United States Conference of Mayors reported that 50 percent of the cities surveyed “identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.”

The causes of homelessness are complex. Providing better paying jobs and more affordable housing will have the greatest impact. Yet, we may not realize that protecting women and children from domestic violence or providing lower cost health care and health insurance will also impact homelessness.


People who live without homes face daily challenges. Some have already been identified. We will look at two more.

Anyone who has experienced a hospital stay knows that the body needs time to rest and recuperate before returning to daily activities. Imagine recuperating without a bed or home. Imagine recuperating without clean water or healthy food. Imagine recuperating without access to medications or clean gauze. People living without homes have no home to return to when they are discharged from a hospital or emergency room. Home health-care nurses and therapists cannot find them. Without proper care and observation, many of these people return to the hospital with infections and recurring complaints.

Haywood Street Congregation, a mission congregation of the Western North Carolina Conference of The United Methodist Church, has created a new way to address these concerns. During the last week of 2013, the Haywood Street Respite opened its doors. The respite provides a home-like atmosphere with the sole purpose of caring for people without homes who have been discharged from the hospital. People staying at the respite receive meals and care around the clock in a safe and sanitary environment. The respite allows for close monitoring by health-care professionals. Laura Kirby, executive director of Haywood Street Congregation, says that people who receive respite care are 50 percent less likely to return to the emergency room or hospital than those who do not.

We have already learned that 36 percent of the homeless population consists of families. But homelessness affects families in another way, too. Many homeless individuals are estranged from their families or have chosen to live away from the protection their families can provide. Homelessness affects the families of homeless individuals.

On January 5, 2014, USA Today ran an article covering the deep cold that crossed the country. The article featured a photograph of a young man wrapped in a blanket by a steam grate on the streets of Washington, DC. Hannah Simmons recognized the face in the picture. She saw her brother Nick of Greece, New York, who had been missing since New Year’s Day. Nick was reunited with his family at a Washington hospital soon after. Associated Press photographer Jacquelyn Martin, who captured Nick Simmons’ poignant image, said, “It’s very easy to put people in a box and to forget that these are real people who have families who love them and are worried about them.”

People living without homes are often challenged by a lack of appropriate health and respite care. Many families face the challenges of grief, loss, and uncertainty when a family member is homeless. These people and families may also endure being ostracized by those in our society who misunderstand some of the causes of homelessness. Might there be someone in your life who grieves the loss of a family member who lives without a home?

Ministries with Those Who Are Homeless

Ministries with those who are homeless target the underlying causes of homelessness. For example, many US cities have street newspapers, which are designed to employ those who are homeless. Street newspapers publish articles addressing issues surrounding homelessness and poverty. One example is The Contributor in Nashville, Tennessee. Homeless and formerly homeless vendors sell the twice-monthly newspaper and keep all their profits, .75 cents for every dollar paper sold. In 2011, The Contributor sold 1.3 million papers earning $2.6 million dollars for their homeless and formerly homeless vendors. Of more than 375 formerly homeless vendors, one third have found housing. The Contributor and other street newspapers like it offer employment, skills development, and education for people living without a home.

Congregations across denominations throughout this country participate in cooperative programs to host and feed homeless people. One such cooperative is Room in the Inn, which serves Middle Tennessee. As the program has grown, so have the services the agency provides, such as literacy programs, computer skills training, and employment placement assistance. Room in the Inn also offers many items most US citizens take for granted, like laundry service, Internet access, and postal services. Like Haywood Street Respite, Room in the Inn offers recuperative care to those recently released from the hospital. Cooperative programs with participating churches and other organizations offer people without homes many options for temporary and long-term housing, medical care and counseling, education, and job placement.

These ministries start with a foundation of establishing relationships with those in need. These relationships make the difference between being in ministry to and being in ministry with homeless people. When we are in relationships with people living without homes, “the homeless” become our neighbors and friends.

Many of us are not aware of the challenges people living without homes face on a daily basis. We may easily think of the lack of affordable housing and poverty as major contributors to homelessness. We may recall news articles and media reports about veterans and mentally ill people who are homeless. But you may not have known that domestic violence and a lack of appropriate medical care also contribute to homelessness. Challenges for those without homes go beyond meals and shelter to include safe and sanitary environments, respite care, skills training and education, job placement, and substance addiction assistance; and the families of those who are homeless suffer, too.

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

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