“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Paul Bowes never thought he’d be without a home. To look at him now, you’d never think it, either. In his early 60s, Paul teaches Sunday school at Jemison Valley BIC Church (Westfield, Pa.) and volunteers his time with the Tioga County Homeless Initiative (TCHI), where he was president for two years. At the time we talked on the phone, he was packing up his kitchen in anticipation of a remodeling project. His kitchen. In his home.
But in the summer of 1986, Paul lived out of his car. He and his wife and two sons, age 10 and 6, had been living in Worcester, Mass., on the second floor of a three-story building, when a boy from the neighborhood set fire to their back porch. In a matter of hours, three families—including Paul’s—lost their homes. At first, the Boweses stayed with friends from church, and Paul went to work as usual. But after a few weeks, Paul sent his wife and children to stay with her parents in Pennsylvania while he looked for a place to rent in Worcester. Out of options, he slept in his car.
No place to go
The fire couldn’t have come at a worse time. The “Massachusetts Miracle”—a tremendous economic boom—had come to Worcester, resulting in an unprecedented spike in rent and a severe housing shortage. Paul reflects, “I would call a realtor to say I would like to rent a house, and that I could pay $900 a month, and be told I would qualify for housing under Section 8,” a low-income housing assistance program sponsored by the U.S. government. “And by the time you thought you had found an apartment it would be gone.”
After months of searching, Paul began to lose hope. “I didn’t see a way out,” he says. But he still had family. His wife’s parents suggested he move south and make a fresh start in Pennsylvania, so he left his job in Massachusetts and accepted his in-laws’ hospitality. But Paul will never forget what it felt like to have nowhere to go at the end of the day. “A lot of people don’t have family,” Paul remarks. “Where do they go?”
In rural northern Pennsylvania, where Paul lives, they can fall back on the TCHI, which offers temporary food and shelter to families and individuals who find themselves out of a home. TCHI began in 2008 when an oil boom in the Marcellus Shale region in neighboring Bradford County caused housing costs to skyrocket, pricing people out of their homes. Thinking Tioga County was next, Jemison Valley BIC and 11 other congregations formed an alliance and prepared to meet the needs of the homeless. In the early days, TCHI used Jemison Valley’s building as its base. Guests in the program slept and ate at the church while they got on their feet. Today, TCHI rents a farmhouse on a local bus route. Each evening, volunteers from one of the participating congregations bring dinner and fellowship, and later, the night shift arrives to see guests through to the morning. It takes a lot of dedication, a full measure of compassion, and countless volunteer hours, but when followers of Christ feel called to such a cause, God provides.
Friends in low places
Jake Austin knows all about God’s provision, having watched his parents run his hometown soup kitchen over the past 15 years. The founder of Shower to the People STL and a BIC church planter in St. Louis, Mo., Jake spent much of his young adulthood working at the soup kitchen. During his college years, he could often be found there, hanging out with his friends without homes. “Seeing the way my parents cared for the poor of our small town really inspired me to work with those on the margins,” Jake says. “I spent a lot of time hanging out with homeless folks because I enjoyed their friendship. I listened to their stories and gained wisdom from their experiences.”
Jake’s friendships and intimate knowledge of the challenges of homelessness ultimately led him to start a new kind of ministry—a mobile shower. “When people think about homeless ministry they think about coats and sandwiches, soup and blankets, of which a large portion of people on the streets have a surplus. What’s often overlooked is that our friends on the streets don’t have regular access to showers for bathing or sinks for brushing their teeth,” Jake explains. “Imagine not showering for months at a time and what that would do to your morale, your emotions, your self-esteem, and your health. There’s an overwhelming hopelessness in living that way.”
So Jake brings living water—literally—to the homeless of St. Louis via a shower truck stocked with towels, soap, and shampoo. Where there’s a fire hydrant to connect to, Shower to the People STL can provide hot showers. When they’re done showering, people leave with clean socks and underwear, a towel, and a hygiene kit. And in some cases, a friend or mentor, too.
The third component of Shower to the People STL, after showers and hygiene kits, is mentorship. Jake and his team hang out with the friends they make on the streets and provide assistance where they can. This comes with a unique challenge inherent to ministry with those experiencing homelessness: the transient nature of the population. “Not being able to know where our friends are at any given day makes for difficult discipleship,” Jake admits. And even when they are able to establish consistent contact, Jake and his team often have a long road ahead of them. “The folks we serve are plagued by many demons both physical and spiritual. We need the armor and power of God to bring wholeness to their lives.”
Sometimes Shower to the People STL only has one chance to serve an individual. But other times, it’s the gateway to a long-term friendship—and even a chance to meet Jesus together. Jake speaks fondly of Will*, his formerly homeless friend of six years. They have been through a lot together—rehab, prison, drugs, church services, community meals, and prayers—but now, eight months sober, Will wants to talk about Jesus, to pray and study the Bible. He’s getting healthy and whole, and even helping others. “It would have been easy to walk away from Will, and there were weeks when I wanted to, but it was in his mess, in his brokenness, his sin, that I found my brokenness, my sin,” Jake reflects. “We are both just beggars at the door of God’s grace.”
Bible, bed, and breakfast
“Beggars at the door of God’s grace” isn’t how most people—homeless or not—like to describe themselves. When Ashland (Ohio) BIC Church joined with other area churches to found Ashland Church Community Emergency Shelter (ACCESS), it wasn’t received well at first. “People didn’t want to stay in a church,” remembers Keith Tyson, pastor at Ashland BIC. “They thought, ‘Why would I go to the church? I already feel bad enough about myself.’” But word travels fast, and within a year, ACCESS and its member churches became known not for condemnation or self-righteousness but for acceptance, friendship, and for helping people get back on their feet.
And that isn’t the only reputation that’s changed since August 2009, when Ashland churches hosted the first 11 participants. After eating and hanging out with the homeless for several years, many volunteers find that homelessness looks very different from what they expected.
Lori Lewis, Ashland BIC’s ACCESS coordinator, remembers how her picture of homelessness changed. “I don’t see the bum with a bottle of alcohol. I don’t see the prostitute. What I see are young parents with children in tow,” she says. “People here end up homeless because of financial problems, lack of job opportunities, or broken families.”
In fact, Lori and Keith both admit that they weren’t even aware of homelessness in Ashland before getting involved with ACCESS. “I was shocked that we had a homeless problem within middle America,” says Lori. “We’re not even close to any cities; we’re very rural.”
That’s the tricky thing about homelessness, particularly in rural areas: You can’t always see it. With a population of 23,000, Ashland doesn’t have much of a visible homeless population. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. Keith explains, “It wasn’t as much people sleeping on grates as it was sleeping in cars, staying in seedy hotels, or taking up residence with friends, sleeping on sofas—not having homes.”
Like TCHI in Pennsylvania, ACCESS is one of a growing number of shelter programs in the nation that are hosted by local church or faith networks that take turns housing and feeding participants for one-week stints. Unlike TCHI, though, ACCESS has no dedicated shelter. Church volunteers transform fellowship halls and Sunday school classrooms into living rooms and bedrooms for one week at a time. “It’s really moving to me how those Spartan classrooms can look homey and warm,” Keith says.
During the day, program participants disperse, going to work, school, or the local Salvation Army Kroc Center, where they can shower, search for jobs and apartments, and get financial counseling. The Kroc Center also helps some people get their GEDs and teaches parenting skills where necessary.
Between the love and hospitality of churches and the concrete skills of the Kroc Center, the ACCESS program has produced impressive results. “ACCESS is an integral part of helping the homeless out of homelessness,” Lori says, citing a statistic that 85 percent of program participants are in permanent housing three years after graduating. But growth can also be seen in the friendships that have formed along the way. Stephanie*, one of Lori’s go-to volunteers, is an ACCESS graduate—a woman who came through the program and now gives of her time and energy to help others walk the same path. Cindy*, who had for years been getting herself arrested just so that she could stay in a warm cell at the police station, went through the program in its first year. “She thought no one would ever come to her funeral,” Keith recalls. “When she died a few years back from COPD, the place was packed.”
Some people stay for as little as three days; others are in the program for eight months. No matter how great the need, the people of Ashland BIC mobilize to meet it—to be, as their church motto states, “the heart, hands, and feet of Jesus.” For a church that only averages 85–90 people on a Sunday morning, this is no small feat. Lori estimates that 80 percent of the congregation participates in some way—bringing a meal, being an evening host, providing transportation for guests, or sleeping at the church overnight. But they serve joyfully, confident that this is what Jesus would do.
Eating with sinners
Whether in small-town Ohio, or urban St. Louis, or rural Pennsylvania, ministry to people experiencing homelessness is complicated and messy and time-consuming. But it’s worthwhile, and it’s a passion that God has planted deep in the hearts of people like Jake Austin.
“After many years of spending time with people living on the streets, I am convinced that they are a group of people whom Jesus would hang out with,” he says. “We strive to walk with our friends and neighbors through hard situations so that by it we are both transformed by being drawn to each other and to Christ Jesus.” Because in the end, we are all just beggars at the door of God’s grace.
*The names of those experiencing homelessness have been changed to protect their privacy.