Churches are on the front line of responding to homelessness because of how often people call on their doors asking for money.
I grew up in a vicarage and homeless people (or “tramps” as we called them) used to come to our door to ask for help. My mom would make sandwiches, but I remember one caller being very unhappy with this.
Later, we found the bag of sandwiches thrown in the hedge just outside the house. The sight of that discarded food stayed with me: a visible sign of the complexity involved in helping people.
The brilliantly researched BBC comedy “Rev” featured this issue almost every episode, with the crack addict Mick continually coming to the vicarage door with improbable stories.
So what is the best way to respond?
The United Kingdom Christian homelessness network, Housing Justice, has produced a common-sense guide to helping homeless callers who come to your door.
The guide is very clear that people should not give money and offers some good practical tips, such as agreeing to a policy and having information available.
I firmly believe that we should help people in need and be as human and kind as possible. But Christians need to stop being doormats.
As referred to in the “Rev” clip linked to above, Christians are often seen as “soft touches” and this does little good – either for ourselves or for the person begging.
One important thing to remember is to not accept the guilt transfer that people begging often try with a potential donor.
This frequently happens by presenting a scenario designed to make you feel solely responsible for a positive outcome. For example, “If you don’t give me the money, then I will not be able to see my sick child.”
Recognizing and rejecting the attempts to maximize your guilt helps you see what is really happening. Whether a sick child actually exists or not, it is not your fault that the person does not have the money to see them.
The brutal reality is that the missing of an important appointment, or even a night sleeping rough, may have to be the consequence of previous decisions that this person has made about which you may know very little.
Christian responses to people in need should not merely be pragmatic but be rooted in good theology.
The first chapter of John’s gospel says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
John chose these two words to sum up the qualities of Jesus: grace and truth. When helping people in need, we need to balance our desire to show grace while acknowledging the importance of truth.
I think this is relevant to all pastoral situations, but especially when it comes to the issues that surround homeless people.
Churches are doing incredible work across the world with vulnerable people. One legitimate critique of churches, however, is that too much of the activity focuses on giving free meals and free accommodation that ask little of the person being helped.
It can run counter to other agencies’ emphasis on encouraging and empowering them to face reality and take responsibility. Churches can be in danger of offering a grace that is detached from truth.
We need to recognize that over the long term, transformative work with homeless people will always involve holding together these kinds of tensions between grace (unconditional acceptance, giving another chance, showing compassion and so on) and truth (enforcing rule, maintaining boundaries, challenging and empowering and so on).
None of this is easy in practice and it cannot be done by one person, or even just one agency.
Joint work and coordination between different organizations are essential for good outcomes – and churches have a vital role to play.
But I firmly believe that balancing grace and truth gives us a strong basis for how we should respond to homeless and vulnerable people.
Being a doormat or a soft touch is tempting and can seem a generous way out of the dilemma, but it doesn’t really help people.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.