Stop Feeding the Homeless
By Ulysses Burley, III, MD, Columnist
Winter is coming. I’m from Houston and that only means milder summer temperatures and less expensive electricity bills. However, I live in Chicago, which means subzero temperatures, negative wind chill factors, and inches upon inches of snow for months. It means keeping a shovel and a bag of rock-salt by the front door. It means waking up earlier than usual to de-ice the windshield of the car. It means being cautious of sheets of dangerous black ice on the road once I get in that car to drive. It means leaving the house in layers of clothing that I’ll quickly shed at my next destination. At least during the harsh winter months, however, I have a warm house to leave in the first place and a car with heated seats to get into and drive to the next warm destination. For that I am grateful. Unfortunately, an estimated 82,212 Chicagoans and 549,928 Americans cannot say the same.
Each winter, an average of 18 homeless people die just because they don’t have a warm place to retreat from the spiteful cold. Legend has it that some members of the homeless community spend the entire spring and summer months begging on street corners to save up enough money to purchase a one-way bus ticket south for the winter. Those who stay have the difficult daily decision of taking to the streets to earn money or standing in line all day at a shelter for a warm bed for the night because doing both isn’t possible when there are more homeless people than beds available on a first come, first served basis.
Despite this fact, most of our efforts for addressing homelessness have focused on feeding the homeless instead of housing them. If food alone was a solution, we’d call it foodlessness instead of homelessness. Since we’ve developed such a strong association between homelessness and food—or a lack thereof—the homeless sometimes end up with more food than they need and still no housing. I often pack up leftovers from large family functions where food was at a surplus and deliver it to the homeless. On the most recent occasion, I found myself delivering food only to find someone else also doing the same. There were only two men at this particular location and they were so overwhelmed with food that one of them rejected some of it. It was in that moment that I realized we were doing this wrong.
No institution has been better at feeding the homeless than the church. You’d be hard-pressed to find a church of any size that doesn’t at least have a food pantry. At my church, the number of homeless people we feed on Saturday often outnumbers the number of members in worship on Sunday. Food has created a tremendous opportunity for evangelism and discipleship in the community but I wonder if we are meeting our greatest potential as the church in this particular mission field. Isaiah 58:7 asks, “Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?” What we’ve done as the church is more like share our food with the hungry and homeless because we’ve conflated the two as one in the same. They are not. Every homeless person isn’t hungry but every homeless person is without shelter. Therefore we should commit more attention to addressing the immediate need of the homeless, namely housing.
Let’s begin with what we already have to offer as a church. If your church is like mine, you have a building with a fellowship hall that is only occupied once or twice a week but is nonetheless heated every day in the winter months. What would it look like for our churches to invest in air mattresses or cots and open our warm churches up for the week for our homeless brothers and sisters?
For our churches with more capacity and resources, what would it take to fundraise and partner with community-centered contractors to acquire and rehab empty homes and then offer them as transitional housing for the homeless while they get on their feet? If your church is like my church, it sits in a community with many boarded-up foreclosed homes taken over by the city to be resold below market value, and in some cases for just $1, under the condition that the property is used for community revitalization. If that doesn’t suit your ministry well, perhaps investing in the Tiny Houses for the Homeless Project where 16×20 foot single homes are built by volunteers at a cost of $10,000 per house—a fraction of the cost to build a standard home.
If your church is like most churches, you barely have the capacity and resources to meet the needs of your own church building, let alone a building for the homeless. The same might be true for the other churches on your block or neighborhood. The good news is that you have each other—a community of community churches—able to feed the homeless apart from each other but able to house the homeless when joined together in time, talents, and tithes as one body of Christ. Homelessness is not a Methodist, Lutheran, Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist, or Presbyterian issue. Homelessness is a Christian issue; and even more than that, it is a human issue. We can do exceedingly and abundantly more than what God has called us to do if we just work together.
So, let us remember Isaiah 58:7 the next time we set out to only feed the homeless, understanding that food is important but food alone won’t keep them warm. Winter is coming.
A native of Houston, Texas, Ulysses W. Burley, III studied at Morehouse College and Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine (FSM). Ulysses previously held an associate position at Northwestern University FSM Allergy, Asthma and Immunology Clinical Research Unit and a position as program director for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Strategy on HIV/AIDS. He is the owner of UBtheCURE LLC, a proprietary consulting company on the intersection of faith, health, and human rights. Facebook—@ubthecure; Twitter—@ulyssesburley; Instagram—@ubthecure www.ubthecure.com.