Who are the folks we lump together as “the homeless?” It seems that if we could unpack this question, we might grow in our understanding and change the way we think about the issues facing our city.
I try to help others (and myself) by first seeing them more like God might see them, as his beloved children. Beyond that, I often find myself scanning the crowd for characteristics in common or their unique differences. Searching for a clue to reveal just exactly how they got here. What I’ve learned is that from a distance, the faces themselves don’t tell the whole story. These days, I hear a lot about “those homeless people,” “the transients,” “the no goods,” “the outcasts”, and they hear it too. Imagine the impact that this judgement has on a struggling human, as strangers draw conclusions about their life’s circumstances without even a single conversation. I’d love to see a change in our mindset that focused on learning and understanding.
We recently took the time to identify the stages in which we often see people at the Jesus Center. Please keep in mind that this chart is meant to describe how people present, not about the cause or solution for their homelessness. It’s also worth mentioning that a person’s “zone” can change almost daily, based on positive relationships, moments of sobriety, or more functional mental health.
Green Zone: Seeking Change in life.
These folks arrive at the Jesus Center before their issues draw them into total despair. They may feel ready to be helped and eager to take steps forward. We are able to support them with shelter, housing information, service referrals, and job training. They take the right steps and slowly rebuild and get back on their feet.
Yellow Zone: Feeling Defeated.
Some days that looks like despair; other days it looks like anger. They might want help but don’t feel worthy of receiving it. They might try for a job interview and not get the job. They will be discouraged. These folks respond to someone coming alongside and encouraging them, challenging them to take one step forward today. They can see light even in their darkness. Their path is slower and sometimes three steps forward and two steps back; but they persist over time and make their way forward.
Orange Zone: Struggling with Hopelessness or Mental Health Crisis.
Living in the survival mode. Those in the orange zone are in survival but still maintain social contact and context. Often their struggles have persisted over a longer period of time. Their despair is usually imbedded in drug addiction and often some mental illness. Or both. Commonly, their struggles have persisted over a long period of time. Their pasts rob them of hope riddled with evictions, low credit scores, or even a criminal record. Their terrain is much more complex and each small victory will lead to another mountain. Their anger and frustration show up more often; so many days they are hard to help.
Red Zone: Active Drug Use or not Accessing Services.
Those in the red zone are often seriously stuck in a cycle of addiction, selling, stealing, and struggling with mental illness. Their actions lead them to commit crimes. They often lose their connection to others because either the illness or the addiction have co-opted their brain. They need VERY sophisticated interventions that are hard to come by in a country that respects free will like we do and whose laws and services don’t consistently help cure these very sick individuals.
We remain at the ready.
The good news is that no one shows up the same way every day and there is evidence that says 2nd tries, 3rd tries and sometimes 10 tries are what is necessary for someone to see that they are the beloved. No one is beyond the love of God. Not one of God’s children is forgotten. Then they can begin to understand that the mean words said about them don’t need to be their label for life, and that they can surrender. Humility is going to be needed for them to receive help to find a path to restoration.
One of our staff shared a story today of how he interrupted the mindset of one of our participants. He told her that shame was not necessary and that her self-loathing could instead be turned to positive steps forward. She paused and thanked him. She hadn’t been able to break the cycle herself and she was attracted to what he had to say.
So next time you see someone you can’t understand from the outside, I hope you will think differently and more curiously about how they got there and how they might find a way out. We can’t solve what we don’t understand. And we need to recognize that the complexity of homelessness in 2020 is far greater than it was even 20 years ago for many more people.
Join us in seeking tailored solutions so that these beloved children of God can find a path to health, wholeness and a life of flourishing. That’s what we do each
day and we need your help.
Laura R. Cootsona