Helping the homeless when you have kids in the backseat can totally be done, but I think it requires some forethought. It’s so important for our children to watch us model compassion to people on the streets, and after writing last week’s post I finally decided to sit down and share more about my thoughts on this topic.
Whenever I talk to other women about our role in helping people on the streets, I find most people have a desire to help but don’t know how to safely do so. Many people choose to not engage with people on the streets and instead give donations of money or food to their church and/or a local homeless shelter. I think this is a great plan for many families. Our churches and shelters are often better equipped than we are to deal with people who have mental illnesses, and sometimes they can find ways to end the cycle of homelessness by giving people job training, stable housing and education while they get back on their feet.
While I am in no way opposed to giving money directly to organizations, I’m also an advocate for finding ways to love and encourage the people God puts in our path on a (sometimes) daily basis. Before I share my thoughts, I first want to say that I’m not an expert in how to care for people on the streets. I’m not a social worker and I haven’t been on staff at a homeless shelter—but—I care deeply about who the bible refers to as the least of these. And after many, many years of ignoring people on freeway corners (and not feeling good about my response) I decided to put thought and research into how I wanted to react differently. Here’s what I do now:
1. I always smile and make eye contact with every person asking for money. Asking for money is humbling, and I’d imagine that most drivers offer scowls or averted eyes. It is not my job to judge people who ask for money, nor do I assume they’re lazy. It’s my job to show them Jesus, who has full power to change their lives. Since I often have less than a minute to show them Jesus, a smile is my first and best bet to safely say, “You are precious and loved.”
2. If it’s daylight and there are plenty of people/cars around, I will roll down my window and give them a paper bag we’ve prepared ahead of time with a bottle of water, granola bar, pack of gum and fruit. There a many inexpensive items you can put in these “sunshine bags” and I’ve included more ideas and a tutorial here. (This is such a fun project to do with your kids!) I love handing out a pre-made bag because it helps our children be intentionally involved in a hands-on manner. Additionally, if you don’t like giving money to strangers because you fear they may use the money in a harmful way, these bags are a very tangible way to help without offering cash.
3. Each time we see a person holding a sign, I use it as an opportunity to tell my children about the gospel. Anna is old enough that she’s noticing the homeless, and she’s asking questions. Sometimes I wait for her to ask, and sometimes I just start talking. It’s a little different each time, but I try to quickly cover the basics in a way she can understand:
“That person is asking us to help him. He probably doesn’t have a job and he may not have a home like we do. He might even be really hungry. We don’t know why he’s asking for help but in the bible Jesus shows us to love people in need. We can do this by praying, and maybe should we also give him one of the bags we made together?”
Over time, I expect this conversation to evolve. I expect my kids will ask more questions and I also plan to have more conversations about when it’s safe to roll down your window, and when it’s not. But for now, we keep it very simple and then we pray for the person we encountered.
4. I try to pay special attention to women on the streets, and I try to allow the Holy Spirit to have a part in how I respond. I’ve had several incidents over the last three years where I felt women were being trafficked. Two of these incidents took place when my children were not with me but the third time, last year, I was at a park with a group of moms and our kids when a teenage girl asked if she could borrow my cell phone. After talking with her for a long time I became suspicious of her circumstances. I ended up bringing her to my house, making her lunch, allowing her to shower, and calling a trafficking center who came and picked her up. I only did this because I felt God leading me to do so, because she was a woman (and young! and very vulnerable!) and because I had a friend who could come home with us for extra safety measures.
The example I’m sharing is rare, and I’m not suggesting it is the norm for our family or should become the norm for yours. But with human trafficking on the rise in many American cities, I’m choosing to tell this story because I think sometimes God asks us to do uncomfortable things like invite a stranger into your home. (And I want to make sure to say, do not confuse uncomfortable with unsafe.) I’d encourage you, if God is tugging on your heart about a certain area such as trafficking, then read about the topic, learn how to identify people being trafficked, and who you can call when you think it’s happening. This is the number for the National Human Trafficking Hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888. Additionally, because of the incidents I’ve witnessed, and how unprepared I felt in the moment, I began carrying a list of all local shelters and nonprofits. A few times I’ve been able to ask women if they have shelter for that night, and if they don’t, I was at least able to give them a phone number or address they could try. (Sadly, they often don’t want to use these resources.) As I’m writing this, I’m realizing I need to create a list for my current city!
Before I wrap this post up, I just want to say (again!) that I’m still learning how to help people I come across while I’m running errands or playing at the park. This is a complicated topic with many different opinions so I hope if you remember one thing, it’s this: we don’t have to be experts on the homeless or human trafficking to be used by God to love His people. Sometimes, it’s actually a lot more simple than we think!
I’d love to hear from you. Any ideas you’d like to add to my list?