I recently spent a night at the Friendship House, Mount Vernon’s homeless shelter. No, my wife hadn’t me kicked out of the house. I am on the board of directors and wanted to see how Friendship House works from the inside.
In the days leading up to my stay, I began to get nervous. Not about my safety (our shelter is well run and very safe), I was simply scared of the unknown. What would it be like to spend the night with a bunch of homeless guys? I also had to fight my pride. What would people think when they saw me walk up to the Friendship House? Would they think I was one of “them”?
It was too late to back out, so when the day arrived, I packed a backpack with the bare essentials, kissed my wife and daughters good-bye, swallowed my pride and fears, and walked up to the front door.
I had decided to arrive “Undercover Boss” style; while the house manager, Kristie, was in on the secret, the residents assumed I was just some guy who needed a place for the night. I knocked on the door and Kristie invited me into her office and walked me through the process everyone goes through.
“Why do you need to stay at the Friendship House?” Kristie asked with a wink. She said that single question reveals quite a bit about the visitors.
“Let’s say I need a place for the night because I am heading to Seattle in the morning,” I said. “Is that a common reason?”
“Very,” she said. “Because we are on the I-5 corridor, many people just stop here on the way to somewhere else.”
I asked Kristie to describe the average Friendship House resident. She responded by telling me stories of previous and current residents. I used to have a mental picture of the average homeless person, maybe you do to. Whatever that image is, get rid of it. There is no “typical” homeless person.
The Friendship House has been a home to all kinds of people. Some are hard working people who have fallen on difficult times. Some of them are lazy and are trying to milk the system. Many are victims of their own sin; many are the victims of other people’s sin. Some are mentally or physically disabled. Some are very capable people – one of our residents had been a lawyer until his addictions destroyed his life. Another one left Friendship House to become a successful businesswoman and now serves on our board of directors. On the other hand, many people leave Friendship House and sink back into old patterns of self-destructive sin.
All of our residences have one thing in common: They are deeply broken people that Jesus desperately loves. In other words, they are just like you and me.
Sure, our brokenness may be more socially acceptable than that of the local panhandler, but we are all broken and sinful nonetheless. You may not struggle with chemical dependency, but your self-dependency is even more dangerous to your soul. You may not be trying to manipulate the system, but maybe you manipulate family members instead. You may not smell of body odor, but your pride is an even greater odor to God.
Last year, I read an excellent book called “When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself.” It showed how easily we develop an “us” verses “them” mentality – “they” are the needy people and “we” are the nice people who help them. This faulty thinking is doubly destructive: it harms the poor by stealing their dignity as children of God and it harms us by masking our need of him.
Don’t misunderstand me –you may be more socially responsible and emotionally healthy than many of our residents and it would be disingenuous to pretend otherwise. But you (and I) need God’s grace just as desperately as every one of them. Just as importantly, Jesus deeply loves all of us. I’d argue that failure to grasp that truth is at the root of most of our self-destructive behavior.
As I listened to Kristie tell stories of past and current residents, I heard a lot of success stories. I also heard a lot of sad stories – just that morning they had to kick out a well-loved resident because he had started drinking again. I was impressed by Kristie’s ability to maintain her hope and humor day in and day out.
Next, I wanted to hear more about what makes the Friendship House so different than many of the shelters in bigger cities. As she talked, I became more and more proud of what we are doing here, but I’ll save that for my next post.