I was surprised by two things yesterday during my sermon. We were continuing our social justice sermon series and I was preaching about homelessness. My hope was to raise awareness for the issue, begin to dismantle our judgments and increase our compassion for the homeless we meet.
I began by asking if anyone had ever been homeless and two people were willing to share. One had spent a few weeks in her car or on the street after being kicked out of her house at 18 for being gay. Another had run away from an abusive situation with his mother and step-father and spent his nights staying with friends. The face of the homeless suddenly expanded… this had even happened to people we knew.
Then I asked if anyone had an experience with a homeless person that they would like to share. Many people were willing to talk about significant experiences with the homeless, from helping a man with gangrene, to taking a person into their home, to the medical professionals who looked past the stench of the person they were dealing with to wash them and treat them with kindness and respect. Now, I knew that folks at Sacred Journeys were awesome, but I have a newfound admiration for them. I probably should had just stopped preaching at that point… stories send a message all their own…but I had more to say.
The number of people who experience homelessness is the worst it has been since the Great Depression and it is expected to increase. Here are a few statistics, gathered from many sources, for you to take in:
- 636,017 people experience homelessness in the United States on any given night in 2011
- Homeless families comprise roughly 34% of the total homeless population.
- Approximately 1.5 million U.S. children experience homelessness each year. On any given day an estimated 200,000 children have no place to live.
- On average, 26% of homeless adults were severely mentally ill, 16% were physically disabled, 15% were employed, 13% were victims of domestic violence, 13% were veterans, and 4% were HIV positive.
Individually we can’t solve the problem of homelessness, but we can make a difference to those we meet. Sadly, we are more apt to approach a homeless person with judgment than with compassion. We’ve been programmed to believe that they are dirty lazy stupid addicts who want nothing more than to take your money to go buy more drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. Seriously, it’s time we move beyond our judgments to compassion. What might it feel like to walk a mile in their shoes? To lose everything? To be reduced to begging? To experience rejection, maybe even revulsion? To be unable to feed your children? To go to bed hungry?
Certainly giving to charities who help these folks is a wonderful way to have compassion. But I challenge each of us (myself included) to take it a step further… to show compassion face-to-face when presented with the opportunity. Bring someone a cup of coffee or a sandwich and stop to talk. Or even if you can’t, acknowledge them and say, “Sorry I can’t help you today” (must be better than being ignored). Let there be a moment of sincere connection where we recognize the humanity and the divinity (the God spark) in them. It’s not easy, but it is worth it. I know, I’ve done it. And if I can, you can.
Peace ~ Kaye