Sandy loves to read People magazine. She couldn’t wait for the latest issue with the fashion review of the Golden Globes.
Norman likes to play cards with the guys. They laugh, tell stories and tease each other about who has the worst hand.
Charlotte loves to sing. Bring out a karaoke machine, and now it’s a party!
Do these people sound like people you know? Perhaps they are a neighbor or a friend from church? Maybe they even sound like you. The names have been changed, but these short sketches represent a few of the 40 homeless guests who recently stayed with us at the Floris Guest House. The photo accompanying this post shows the dining area that was arranged so that each guest could have a warm, comfortable place to eat and enjoy some conversation before going to sleep.
What just happened in your mind when you read that Sandy, Norman and Charlotte are homeless? Did you suddenly think of them as being less like you? If so, you wouldn’t be alone in that way of thinking. Homelessness seems like such an extreme situation that it can be hard to imagine living that way, much less imagine how someone might end up in that situation.
There are many reasons why someone becomes homeless. Job loss, a health crisis, family instability, mental illness and substance abuse often combine into a perfect storm that results in lack of permanent, safe housing. The Fairfax-Falls Church Community Partnership to Prevent and End Homelessness estimates that there are 2,000 people who are homeless in our area at any given time. Who are our homeless neighbors in the Fairfax County area?
- 60% of individuals who are homeless are people in families.
- 35% of the total homeless population is children.
- 21% of the total homeless population is singles who have been homeless for a prolonged period of time or have had multiple episodes of homelessness in a relatively short period of time. (http://www.fairfaxcounty.gov/homeless/endinghomelessness_faq.pdf )
So, what can we all do to help?
- Learn more about poverty and homelessness. Income is only one component of this perfect storm, although poverty definitely plays a role in homelessness. Recent figures from the U.S. Census Bureau put the number of Americans living in poverty at about 46 million. That comes out to 1 in 6 Americans. A recent movie entitled The Line (http://thelinemovie.com) illustrates the challenges of living just above the poverty line in America. You may be surprised by the backgrounds of each person highlighted in the video. Their stories and their struggles to stay above the poverty line are powerful and worth watching as a way to learn more about poverty in America.
- Serve. The Guest House is an example of one of the many ways in which we are doing what we can at Floris to help neighbors who are living on the edge. You can continue to make a difference by serving in one of the ongoing ministries that we support all year, such as Grace Ministries, the Embry Rucker Shelter or So Others Might Eat (SOME). Visit http://www.florisumc.org/servethecommunity to learn more and sign up for current opportunities to serve.
- Pray. We can create another type of community by offering our collective prayers for the safety and shelter of our homeless neighbors. I wonder what could become possible if we all prayed for our homeless neighbors every day.
There is a phrase that people say when they learn of someone else’s difficult circumstances: “There but for the grace of God go I.” This phrase is generally meant to acknowledge that whatever difficult situation the other person is in could have happened to us, but didn’t. We see them or hear about their plight and sort of say, “Whew! That could have been me.” That’s true, and it is important to feel empathy for our neighbors who are struggling. But by thinking or saying this, we are also still keeping ourselves apart from those who are going through something difficult, like homelessness. It’s almost as if we’re saying we’re the lucky ones who have been spared due to God’s grace.
I think that one of the ways we can do more to carry out God’s vision for us to live in community is to change the way we think. We’re not so different from Sandy, Norman, or Charlotte just because we live in a warm, stable home, and they do not. “There but for the grace of God go I” is a good start. “There I am” is an even better way to connect with our neighbors with a true spirit of community.