A Sanctuary In Time Of Need
302-652-8133 • fax: 302-652-8641
To be homeless is to have two things happen to you. First, something has knocked you off your feet. It may be the loss of a job or the death of a loved one; it may be a nervous breakdown or a broken leg; it may be an ugly divorce or an abusive relationship; it may be an addiction or a run-in with the law. Whatever it is, it leaves you on your back scared to death.
Something like this happens to everyone sooner or later. Hard times teach us that we don't have all the answers and that we are not in control. Not everyone who goes through hard times becomes homeless. We all fall, but some of us get caught before we hit the street. We get rescued by our health insurance or our workers' comp; our family and friends take us in; we swallow our pride and seek counseling.
The homeless are the people that nobody catches. In our world where fewer and fewer people live in community with others, they represent our worst nightmares: loss of control over our lives, vulnerability, financial and emotional decimation. Perhaps that is why many in our society are so desperate to make the homeless appear different from the rest of us. Even people who are quite ready to give them alms often seek to assure themselves that "the homeless are not like me." In truth, the homeless are exactly like me--broken, helpless and struggling to find stability in the midst of chaos.
Over the last two decades homelessness has defied the quick-fix solutions of government agencies and well-meaning individuals. As in any national issue, the longer a problem remains unsolved, the more polarized the debate becomes over its cause and resolution.
At one extreme are those experts who argue that there is no homeless problem. From their perspective, the data clearly demonstrate that 85% of all homeless people are either chemically addicted or mentally ill. Take care of these problems and homelessness would take care of itself.
At the other extreme are those advocates who claim that homelessness is first and foremost a housing crisis. Provide affordable housing for every individual and family and the need for shelters and soup kitchens would soon disappear.
The power and attraction of such arguments are not only that they are in one sense true, but also that they absolve their proponents from grappling with the day-to-day needs of flesh-and-blood homeless persons. The minute one moves beyond homelessness as an issue to working with people who happen to be homeless, one realizes that there are no easy answers. Recovery from homelessness is almost always a multi-issue and many-phase process. Providing most homeless folks with housing alone is not going to enable them to get back on their feet. Like any other powerful, painful experience, becoming homeless usually opens up old wounds. People must deal with these unresolved issues from their past before they can return to full health. At the same time, without the security of decent, affordable housing that cannot be snatched away at a moment's notice, no one is capable of addressing the many other issues that contribute to homelessness in America.
The homeless and the "housed" seem to be separated by a chasm of wealth, power, influence and community. At Friendship House, we strive to build a bridge across this chasm. However, we also seek to recognize the similarities among people, those common experiences, personality traits, gifts of wisdom, and the wounds that all human beings share, even though the specific life circumstances may differ. We believe that seeing one another as whole human beings, with strengths and weaknesses, enables us to build a community which empowers not only the homeless, but also those of us who offer them service and support.
The life of Jesus of Nazareth summons us to build these bridges of understanding and compassion. The Friendship House network of shelters, drop-in centers and empowerment programs seek to be planks in this Gospel Bridge.
While we hope to build a sense of community, we recognize that the Friendship House resources are often sought by persons driven preliminary by their physical needs for food, clothing, housing, employment, bus fare, etc. Friendship House is perceived by these folks as a place that may provide them with what they want.
For some, however, Friendship House becomes a place where they discover something for which they did not even know they were searching. We want to provide caring, consistent, supportive services for those who need them. However, we always remain open, hopeful for deeper relationships, such as those described below.
To an outside observer, a typical Sunday breakfast at St. Andrew's Church is church volunteers hiding in the kitchen and young homeless men gorging themselves on day-old donuts. Each seems focused on their given task, frozen in their social caste. Within the soup-kitchen meal, however, a smaller group of fellow travelers is breaking bread together. These folks have learned one another's names and have listened to each other's stories. They come not for the food, but for the friendship. One Sunday six years ago, two friends found the courage to invite anyone who wishes to join them in the chapel after breakfast for prayer together. Now a dozen or so friends end each breakfast by finding Christ in one another in a non-denomination worship service.
On any given Sunday, besides the hungry to be fed and to serve, there are others who come to the breakfast each Sunday hungry to see their friends. These folks don't really "need" to be there. Formerly homeless, they rise from their beds hoping to share a cup of coffee with a friend; not on the schedule to serve, they stop by on their way to church hoping to see a familiar face.
At The Friendship House Women's Day Center, the tables are often crowded with women looking for apartments and/or jobs. The phone is busy as the women place multiple calls in their search. Information is shared among the women about employment possibilities, housing opportunities, and social services. During one lull in the phoning, the telephone rings and a staff person chats briefly. Returning to the table with a smile, she reports, "That was Yvonne...just checking in." Unable to come to the center on a particular day, women call to check on their friends--the guests and the staff the Women's Center.
Homelessness is a complex issue, which Friendship House addresses at a variety of levels. We provide basic services to meet physical needs and we offer community to meet spiritual and emotional needs.
In the end, it matters very little how many people Friendship House feeds at its breakfast or how many low-paying jobs we find for our unemployed clients or how many homeless people we get off the streets into overnight shelters or substandard housing. Although these are worthwhile efforts which must be made to meet people's immediate needs, it is simplistic to presume that any social program or political agenda can staunch the wound of injustice that is killing the people of God. The worth of any human act lies less in its power to overcome evil as in its capacity to express love for another. When service leads to mutual understanding and respect and programs become arenas for communities of peers, then the Kingdom of God is alive and well among the many diverse people that call Friendship House home.