As I walked up to the homeless shelter, carrying a backpack with the essentials, I fought two battles – one with fear and one with pride. I wonder if that is how everyone feels when they ask for night’s stay or if it ever becomes routine.
Compared with everyone else at Friendship House, I didn’t really have anything to complain about. My overnight visit was completely by choice. Tomorrow I’d go back to my warm bed, full pantry, and loving family. My visit wasn’t prompted by desperation but because, as a board member for Friendship House, I wanted to observe our shelter from the inside.
Why was I battling fear? It wasn’t for my safety – our shelter is very safe and well run. I was simply scared of the unknown. What would it be like to spend the night with a bunch of homeless guys? And why was I battling pride? I’m ashamed to admit it, but I didn’t anyone driving past mistaking me for one of “them.” Little did I know that that the next 24 hours would completely challenge my notions of “us” and “them.”
The Face of Homelessness
Obviously, I didn’t want to reveal my position as a board member, so when (after a moment’s hesitation) I knocked on the front door, the residents assumed I was just some guy who needed a place to stay. Only the executive director and house manager, Katie,* were in on the secret. Katie invited me into her office and walked me through the intake process everyone goes through.
“Why do you need to stay at Friendship House?” she asked with a wink. Katie said that question reveals quite a bit about the visitors.
“Let’s say I just 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 stop here on the way to somewhere else.”
“Describe for me the average Friendship House resident,” I asked.
Katie responded by telling me stories of past and present residents.
Do you have a mental picture of the average homeless person? I know I did, but I quickly realized that there is no typical “face” of homelessness. Some are hard working people who’ve fallen on hard times. Some are lazy and want to milk the system. Some are victims of their own sin; some are the victims of other people’s sin. Some are mentally or physically disabled. Some are very capable – one of our residents had been a lawyer until a drug addiction destroyed his life.
Katie shared several success stories. One former resident got an entry-level job at the local newspaper and worked her way up into management. Since then, she has become the new executive director of Friendship House. Katie also shared some heartbreaking stories – just that morning they had to ask a well-loved resident to leave because he had started drinking again. I envied Katie’s ability to maintain her hope and humor in face of constant disappointments.
Grace and a Change of Clothes
After our meeting, Katie handed me off to Pete for my orientation to the rules and routines of the house. Pete was a house assistant, one of the veteran residents who help keep things running smoothly. A young man named Tim, barely 18 years old, was also receiving his orientation. The rules were vaguely reminiscent of my Bible college days – no drugs or alcohol, no pornography, and no sleeping with the residents at the women’s house. Another rule (which we should have had at college) required daily showers and wearing clean clothes.
“What if I don’t have any other clothes?” Tim asked. All he had was the clothes on his back and his cell phone.
“Don’t worry, we’ll find some for you in the clothing bank,” Pete said. He said it without a hint of surprise, as if not owning a change of clothes was the most normal thing in the world. I wondered why that impressed me so much. Probably because I live in a world where you are judged by what you have and what you do. At Friendship House, people were just people. It didn’t matter why you were there or what you had, you were accepted.
C. S. Lewis once described the church as a field hospital where the less wounded care for the more wounded. I watched his words played out over the next 24 hours. These guys didn’t have any pretence about having their act together or being better than anyone else. I guess that’s harder to do when you are at a homeless shelter.
Us vs. Them
During my visit, I realized that all of our residents accepted each other because they had one thing in common: They were all deeply broken people. Yet Jesus loves each of them immeasurably. 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. We may not struggle with chemical dependency, but our self-dependency is even more spiritually dangerous. We may not be trying to manipulate the system, but maybe we manipulate family members instead. We don’t smell of body odor, but our spiritual pride smells even worse to God.
Don’t misunderstand me – you may very well be more socially responsible and emotionally healthy than most Friendship House residents. But you and I need God’s grace just as desperately as every one of them. In fact, the most important lesson I learned that night was that there is no “them,” only “us.” The woman using food stamps and the man with the cardboard sign are not “them.” They are us. Not because “there but for the grace of God go I,” but because we are already there and our only hope is God’s grace.
*All names have been changed.