first published in Floodgates April - June 2016
By Jerry Teo and Debbie YM Loh
People often think that a state of homelessness is about not having a physical shelter to stay. To a certain extent, that is true, but the heart of the matter lies beyond what is obvious. Homelessness is a situation where a person lacks a family to return to, or a community to belong. That is the crux of the experience of homelessness – the isolation and vulnerability of being without a loving and accepting home.
It may not be immediately apparent to us, but a loving and accepting home shields us from the impact of misfortunes and tragedies, even if they were self-inflicted. Having a close-knit community of family, relatives and close friends allows us to be able to find the relational and practical support we need to solve daily problems, even to overcome our own shortcomings.
For those in a situation of homelessness, these resources are unavailable to them for many reasons. Some of our street friends have faced devastating tragedies, misfortune and failure in their lives, facing repeated rejections until the final point where they are spurned even by their own loved ones. They also face material poverty. Today, our friends face constant uncertainty in their lives, not knowing where they will sleep or when their next meal would come.
This experience is particularly difficult for those diagnosed with mental health difficulties, where even their own family members do not know how to support or communicate with them. They often get associated with the wrong company before ending up on the streets. They often require medication and stable routines, making it is more challenging for us to assist them in this when we are unsure of when we get to see them.
Nourishing with love
Food security is certainly an issue for any person in a situation of homelessness, and this is understood by many charity organisations that organise food distribution programmes. Thus food provisions have been given generously whether in an organised or spontaneous way, to the point of abundance. People are very willing and compassionate to provide in this area.
Sometimes the focus is so much on food provision that we lose sight of the “beneficiaries” themselves – we lose the human touch in the process when we become determined only to “feed” the hungry. At Street Ministry we want to shift mindsets from “feeding” to “sharing food” as an approach that gives dignity to the person.
People need others to care for them as a person of equal dignity. If we truly desire to make a meaningful difference, instead of giving out food to 50 to 100 people without knowing any of them, we would rather a volunteer give to two to three people and spend time having a meal with them – being present with them as a friend, beyond just providing food for them.
Based on our experience, those who have someone who would come to see and encourage them generally stay off the streets longer. Having someone to visit them as a friend, even, as family, does wonders for them more than a hearty meal can do. Having strangers come, pass them food, and leave without interaction only serves to further heighten their sense of isolation and estrangement.
Volunteering as being present
Volunteering with Street Ministry or other NGOs is a good way to reach them, and consistency in spending time with them really makes a difference. We do not encourage volunteers to serve food and keep at arms-length, but to sit with them as an equal partake a meal together.
As people serving those in homelessness, we need to break our own ‘saviour’ mentality by being friends. As friends we do not think that we are greater than the other. As a friend, it is a mutual relationship with one another, both standing as equals. It doesn’t mean that we need to provide anything for the other person. They simply need a friend more than just someone to come and save them.
When we are on the same equal standing, I realise not only do I need to learn to accept them, they also need to learn how to accept me. We always tell volunteers to be approachable and ready to talk about anything in life. That is what friends do with each other.
Jesus as example
Jesus’ life on earth provides the Street Ministry with a clear model for our ministry philosophy. Jesus made the radical move to approach those who were rejected by society. For lepers, for example, Jesus was willing to stretch out his hand to touch them. He was also willing to spend time with those whom society branded as sinners. Jesus also made sharing meals with people a regular rhythm of his ministry, including those that society had rejected. You can also consider doing the same!