Four years ago I was approached by a man in the parking lot of Panera Bread. "My wife, our son, and I are living in a hotel down the road and if I don't have $123 today, I'll be evicted tomorrow. Will you help me?" I asked him to get in the car. I told him if I drove him to the hotel and if what he told me was true, I'd pay the hotel the $123. He jumped in, we drove to the hotel I confirmed his story and paid the bill. I thought I was done. But Jesus didn't.
I had this "10 Second Rule" moment. "I'll tell you what," I said to him. "I'd like to take your family to dinner at the restaurant next door and hear why you're homeless." Here's why. At that time, pre-Covid every major employer in town was almost offering "free beer" to get people to work for them. The idea of being unemployed and homeless made no sense to me. So we went to dinner and my education began.
"Mr De Graaf, I was building houses three months ago for a small outfit. I fell off the roof, spent a week in the hospital and six more weeks in rehab, and could not work. My unemployment and workman's comp insurance didn't cover the rent so we lost our apartment we've had for four years. That's why we're homeless."
"Okay," I understand. "But why don't you get a job now?" He said, "Every homeless shelter in town is full and if I don't beg for money all day I can't afford the $395 a week it costs to stay here and we'd be out in the cold. Even if I did get a job I wouldn't get paid for two weeks and where would we live in the meantime?" Good point. I'd not thought of that. "Also even if I had a job, paying rent at the hotel is so costly that I could never save up enough for a deposit and 1st month's rent for an apartment. I'm stuck with no way out." Another good point.
"Here's what I'll do," I said. "But this is a one-time offer. I'll go right now to the hotel office and pay for the next month's rent. You then have two weeks to find a job and two weeks until payday. If you get a job and I can confirm that with your employer I'll give you enough for a deposit and the first month's rent. I'm willing to give you "enough rope" to allow you to either climb up it or hang yourself. Is it a deal?" He gratefully accepted my offer. But he never got a job as far as I know. He still calls me every few months begging for help, but I remind him of my one-time offer.
But, despite that "failure" I was intrigued to understand homelessness more. Frankly, I'm embarrassed to admit I just thought most homeless people were either alcoholics, addicts, mentally ill, or lazy. I grew up calling them "wineos" and writing them off as unfixable. Since coming to faith I didn't use that language anymore but my stereotype had not changed all that much—shame on me. But over the next month, the Holy Spirit led me to meet with eight ministries in Grand Rapids where I live to understand homelessness better. Yes many single homeless men fit my stereotype, but even they deserved more compassion than judgement. But almost everything I had always believed about homeless families was wrong. Everyone confirmed what that homeless father said was true of most homeless families. Unlike homeless single people, 83% of homeless families in our county have at least one full-time job. Not all homeless people are alike.
That led me to a local ministry, Family Promise, one of the largest Christian ministries in Grand Rapids serving homeless families. At that time they had 132 families in hotels using COVID grants to pay the rent. Why hotels instead of apartments? Every apartment project in our city had waiting lists. Even worse the average rent was $1,156 per month for a two-bedroom apartment. With utilities that's beyond what someone making even $15 per hour can afford. And if you've been evicted from your previous apartment, as almost all homeless families have, no landlord will touch you. Once homeless, the obstacles to finding stable housing are overwhelming. In the meantime their children are trying to do homework out of a hotel room, or their car.
Together we decided the best option was to get homes for these families. We are now buying up abandoned, or repossessed mobile homes for maybe $3,000-$7,000, completely rehabbing them putting in another $10,000-$14,000 in repairs, and giving the homes to pre-qualified families. Lot rent is on average $550 a month, plus utilities, well within a working family's income. Bless God due to a number of generous believers Family Promise is now giving a house to a homeless family every 14 days! This is an idea that can work anywhere.
But other groups of homeless people deserve our attention and have their unique challenges. Homeless Vets often suffer from PTSD and need a safe, warm, dry place to live until they can get the help they need. If you are a vet, consider helping a vet. People recently released from prison need jobs desperately, but their felony convictions often make them unemployable. They need Christian employers willing to take a chance. Visit a local homeless shelter and begin asking questions. Beg the Holy Spirit to teach you what his will for you in all of this.
Here's my point for this blog. The "least of these," are all around us. But we're often reluctant to get engaged personally because we're afraid it will get messy, and expensive and we're likely to get taken advantage of. All of which are possible and quite likely. But I've had to remind myself of this which I wrote in The 10 Second Rule, "It's often the rich, the educated, or the religious who miss the call to truly follow Jesus because what he requires is an offense to their sensibilities."
What is Jesus calling you to do right now that may be an "offense to your sensibilities?"