Getting Off the Streets

Over the last two months, I’ve been working to help a man get off the streets. We’ll call him “Hakim.” He’s an African-American man in his 50’s who has a remarkable knack for striking up conversations with strangers. I’m a white preacher in my late 30’s who’s a bit of an introvert. We met at the YMCA through a mutual friend.

When you meet Hakim, it may be hard to understand why he is homeless. He works hard (and works out), he’s smart, funny, and friendly. He has a commercial driver’s license. He has no mental illness and no addictions. When we met, he had a job waiting for him as a commercial driver, provided he could meet certain criteria.

But he also has—or had—the nearly insurmountable obstacles that face many people who are financially poor: bad checks he had written 12 years ago; the money to buy his own uniform; a place to store his clothes and few belongings.

I’ve been meeting with him weekly for a meal and conversation. We talk about his goals, the next steps he wants to take to get off the street, and our relationship. I’ve been as honest as I can about my motivations for helping him, and we’ve talked about keeping healthy boundaries and the distorting effect money, race, power and privilege has on our relationship. We also talk about the church I’m trying to plant, my family, and our thoughts about the world.

Many years ago when the company he worked for went out of business, checks he had floated toward his last paycheck bounced. He found out last month he wouldn’t be able to transfer his CDL to an Alabama license until he paid off this ancient debt. The job he had secured would wait for him for one month.

We’ve scrambled the last month trying to get him some odd jobs. He did some work for me as well, helping out with some ministry tasks around town, setting up and taking down our worship space. We resolved that last week, we’d take care of the debt, transfer his license, and get him ready to start his job. That’s when the circus began.

Monday, May 13
8:00 AM – I call ahead to [small rural Alabama town]’s DA’s office, worthless check unit. The phone rings and rings and rings. I try several other numbers.

8:30 AM – I call the DA’s secretary, who nearly hangs up on me until I explain I’m a pastor trying to give her money. She says the woman I need to talk to is on vacation, and I’ll need to call back next week. I explain I already have all the information I need, I just want to know how we need to make out the check. She becomes much more receptive.

9:30 AM – Information in hand, I meet Hakim at the YMCA. We make a plan for the day. We think we can get this knocked out by noon.

10:00 AM – We go to the bank and get a cashier’s check for the necessary amount.

10:30 AM – We drive to [small rural Alabama town] to pay his debt. He keeps talking about paying the church back, but I remind him that we do not do loans. We pay debts—that’s what Jesus does. We do a short Bible study in the car. This is like the day of jubilee!

11:30 AM – We arrive in the office of the DA. We pay the debt. She takes it to the Sheriff’s office and explains that it will take some time to clear out of the database, but we should be good to go. “In case it doesn’t clear,” I say, “Is there a number we can call?” See, I’m smart, because I’ve dealt with bureaucracy before. “Also, can I get a receipt?” See how smart I am? Good thing I’m so smart. She photocopies the check and writes a number at the top.

11:45 AM – Just to see if we can, we go downstairs to the license office. The officer behind he desk asks for his old driver’s license, his social security card, his medical examiner’s card… and his birth certificate. “You don’t need my birth certificate,” he says. I think he’s trying a Jedi mind trick on her. “Yes we do,” she says. He looks at me in disbelief. “It’s not a problem,” I tell him. “We’ll just go to the health department and get you a birth certificate.” “That’s going to be more money,” he tells me. He already feels like I’ve given him too much. “We’ve come too far to let this stop us,” I say. Very inspirational.

12:00 PM – Every office shuts down for lunch. We go to a cafe. “That lady didn’t need my birth certificate,” he says. “She was just being a butt.” “No, I’m sure she wouldn’t ask for it if she didn’t need it,” I say. “They didn’t ask for a birth certificate in Jefferson County.” I chalk it up to paranoia. He’s been living on the streets, so naturally he’s suspicious of people. He also has a tendency to get into arguments with the police. He physically shakes in the presence of people in uniform.

We get the directions to the health department from the wonderful lady who serves us. She’s pregnant, and we can tell she thinks we’re an odd couple in this all-white cafe. Hakim cracks a few jokes about being out of his element, which is his way of dealing with discomfort. Before we eat, we invite her to pray with us, and I can tell people are watching us. We pray for our food, for our server, for her expected child, and for our mission.

1:00 PM – We visit the health department to get a copy of his birth certificate. There’s just one problem—he changed his name nearly 20 years ago, from something white and English-sounding to something more African and Arabic. We go around and around with the people at the health department until we decide we’ll need to get the court documentation for the name change. It’s in another county.

2:20 PM – After driving to [second small Alabama town], we stand in line to get the name change documentation. After paying for that, we go downstairs to the DMV to try for the license again.

3:00 PM – When we go into the DMV, the lady behind the desk asks to see his license, medical examiner’s form, social security card… and NEVER ASKS FOR THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE. Hakim does not say, “I told you so,” but I do not feel so smart anymore.

We spend the next hour on the phone calling back and forth with [first small Alabama town]’s sheriff’s office and another number where people who hold the power to “clear it out of the computer” are spending their time watching YouTube videos of cats and eating Chee-tos. Well, I do not have evidence for this last part. They may be hard at work. But they clearly don’t want to be talking to us, and they keep referring us back to the former number.

4:30 PM – The government offices close. We drive home and get some dinner on the way. I drop him off at the shelter at 5:30. We’ll try again tomorrow.

The following day, Hakim called me in the morning. He had called the DMV in Birmingham and his name was clear! We went to wait in line for three hours, and he came out with his temporary Alabama CDL. We celebrated by going to Captain D’s (his choice). Man, that deep fried fish is good.

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So far, we have spent nearly $1000 on Hakim: weekly lunch meetings, two uniforms and changes of clothes, shoes, supplies, the occasional motel room for when he had overstayed his shelter time, cell phone time, various costs associated with his debts, and so on. I’ve driven him over 200 miles.

I share this story for several reasons:

  1. I am so proud of our church for helping finance this guy’s efforts to get off the street.
  2. I want to warn anyone who ever says homeless people, or poor people in general, just “need to get a job.” If you say this in my hearing, I will not guarantee your physical safety.

Most middle-class and wealthy people just have no clue how forcefully the spiral of poverty can suck you down. It’s one thing to be a white college graduate starting out with $25 and a duffel bag. It’s another to have to claw your way out through injustice and a system rigged to keep you poor. While I believe Hakim could have eventually dug his way out, this relatively short experience of bureaucratic frustration made it even more clear to me that a skewed legal system, stress, depression, and discrimination are all part of the obstacles in the way of people becoming self-sufficient.

And I have not begun to address those who can’t quite reach self-sufficiency. Plenty of research has shown that we spend more on people in poverty if we neglect them. It would make much more sense to simply give people housing. In Hakim’s case, it doesn’t make sense to let a fine of a few hundred dollars prevent him from getting a job and becoming a productive member of society and paying taxes. It is remarkably inefficient to keep such a person in a shelter or a prison.

I also share this story because I have wanted, for a long time, to focus our mission efforts on helping a smaller number of people make one or two significant changes in their lives. Rather than open a kitchen to feed hundreds, what if we resolved, as a church, to take someone out to lunch and spend time with them? To treat them not like a problem to be solved, but a friend and helper with whom we could walk as they tried to define and meet their own goals? Who might have gifts or graces that could benefit us, too? I think churches need to ask, “What do homeless people or people trapped in poverty have that we need?”

As I said, I do understand the complex relational, economic, and development issues surrounding all mission work. I constantly reevaluate my own motivations. Am I trying to be Jesus and live out a savior complex? Am I carrying a white-man’s burden? Am I maintaining healthy boundaries? Do I understand that money, power, and privilege affect all of my relationships, but especially those with people more financially poor than myself?

I’ve decided that though I need to raise those questions and wrestle with them, I can’t wait until my motivations are pure and my methods foolproof before I act. Hakim may be Jesus in disguise, the man robbed by thieves on the road to Jericho. Or I may incarnate Jesus when I act out of compassion. Or maybe Jesus is incarnate not in either one of us individually, but in the moment when we both try to reach across the physical, economic, and spiritual barriers that the kingdom of death has erected to divide us.

I should also add that I’m no expert at this, and I’m not sharing this story to be self-congratulatory. People much wiser than me have been doing this kind of work for much longer, and much more effectively. I’m not a full-time social-worker. I’m a pastor trying to plant a church. But something about this situation was compelling enough that I knew I could not continue to pastor my congregation and say the things I say if I didn’t make the effort to help Hakim realize his goals of getting off the street and into what he says is his dream job.

Anyway, yesterday I picked up Hakim after his first day of work. He looked professional in his uniform and name badge. He was tired but happy. I know his work is not over yet. He has a long way to go, and, like other homeless people I know, he will take two steps forward and one or more back. But he is on the way to supporting himself and, he says, paying it forward. He has managed to do very well under a crushing burden. Now that it is being lifted, I look forward to seeing what he can do.

Ending Poverty

I’ve been engaged in a Facebook discussion tangent recently about the old debate over whether “government” (meaning us, collectively) or “the church” should bear more responsibility for taking care of “the poor” (meaning people with low incomes). I put all those things in scare quotes because it is not always clear what we are talking about when using those words. Here is an edited version of how I responded:

I’d recommend Walking with the Poor by Bryant Myers for anyone interested in poverty and development issues. Myers is former VP of WorldVision, and brings a great synthesis of theology and policy analysis into his study of poverty and what he calls “Transformational development.”

The taxes versus charity argument about whether “government” or “the church” should help the poor is not compelling to me. Churches do some kinds of aid very well. We typically return an economic benefit to our local community that is many, many times our budget. We multiply dollars with volunteer hours and give a spiritual boost to the neighborhoods where we locate. It’s called “the halo effect” and you can read more about it here. Some Europeans from countries with state-sponsored churches who visit the States are astonished that we do all that we do without government aid, relying solely on donations.

But many kinds of church aid are not as efficient as government aid. When we do a can drive, for example, we are burning gasoline to go to the store to buy food that has been stocked on shelves (at significant labor costs) and warehoused for retail. Our distribution networks make us feel good, but they are not efficient. What the church excels at is person-to-person relationship building. The kind of development that needs to happen to reduce poverty happens best when churches are intentional about connecting people across economic and racial lines, which they cannot do as long as they are segregated by neighborhoods, class, and race. This is less about money that we give away than face time that we spend in coming along side those who are struggling, simply learning to be with each other and loving each other. When you consider the huge amount of wasted potential and human capital that poor people spend on being poor—difficulty transporting themselves, missing work because they are sick, or getting caught in the cycle of predatory lending—it boggles the mind why we consider it *not* in our best interest to help them through government assistance. The amount of GDP wasted by poor people on what could go to benefit society is staggeringly high. Why is building roads for car owners and shipping goods in our collective best interest, but providing public transportation and public education is not? Should TVA’s development of power in the rural Southeast U.S. have been left up to the churches? Should churches provide fire and police protection as well?

While I take seriously our imperative to do all the good we can to all the people we can in all the ways we can, the church is called to represent the Kingdom of God. I can’t help but wonder if the devil’s strategy is to keep us Christians perpetually busy with cleaning up his messes and dealing with his casualties so that we don’t have time to confront his wickedness head-on. You may have heard the saying “Charity is pulling people out of a river; justice is stopping others from throwing them in.” But there’s also a large number of idle bystanders who will criticize any attempt to do either as meddling or being political. And the people doing the shoving will naturally tell us to mind our business.

Churches can do some things to help the poor, but we cannot build parks, provide public transportation, health care, and education to everyone. It is true that we have done a marvelous job building hospitals and founding colleges and working at peace-making across the globe. But many of those hospitals and universities are now sucking the life out of poor people because they are caught in the same sinful self-destructive systems as our banking and insurance institutions.

The people who are loudest about shifting the responsibility for the poor from government to the churches are people like Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, neither of whom tithe, according to their tax records, but only give the American average: 2%. This kind of hypocrisy makes me livid. Folks who think churches can curtail poverty or do community development by providing soup kitchens and clothes closets are the people who have no understanding of poverty because they do not live with it. Nearly anyone who works with Christian nonprofit ministry among the poor will tell you that government—the financial and social priorities we set through our own political action—has to have a role in reducing poverty. Shifting the costs of poverty onto the backs of the financially poor only makes it more inefficient and expensive for everyone. When people use the ER for their primary care, when they miss work because of illness or transportation issues, when they lack time to parent their own kids, we all lose. Costs go up for all of us. At least, costs go up for 99% of us. Those at the top live in their own world.

The fact is, most people DO have intrinsic motivation to work and better their lives. Dependency and energy conservation (i.e. “laziness”) usually happens when people are repeatedly knocked on their duff, which is what Martin Seligman calls “learned helplessness.” It’s amazing how much harder people work when they have savings, food and health security, and hope for the future.

I’ve been qualifying my use of the phrase “the poor,” because it only describes one sort of financial poverty. Myers points out that there is also social poverty, political poverty, health poverty, and spiritual poverty. We are a nation that has become contemptuous of the financially poor because we ourselves are spiritually poor. We are alienated from each other and from the God who calls us to a different kind of life:

For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. (Revelation 3:17-19)