When I used to work in a homeless services facility in Atlanta, we would often see men and women whom we had previously served.  They would come back and often be in the same situations – or worse.  Sometimes they had stopped taking medications that helped to stabilize their mental illness.  Sometimes they had relapsed.  Sometimes they just hadn’t been able to stick with a job.   Sometimes their job had been eliminated.

But we had no rules about how many times someone could receive services from us.  We had standards about how many times they could participate in certain programs because, if those services weren’t helping someone to move forward, then obviously it was best for us to connect them to other resources.  But we never turned them away from the doors of our building. 

And let me tell you, there were times when it was incredibly difficult for our staff to exercise that kind of patience.  But we did it, and I do believe that it was a biblical demonstration of the mercy God calls us to exercise in all of our interactions with people.  It is unfortunate that we most often ignore this when approaching those who most need our mercy.

It may sound harsh, but as a society, we are often far more compassionate toward children living in poverty than we are toward adults living in the same conditions.  I know what many would say in response to that statement – that adults have made choices that children did not.  Sometimes that is true, and sometimes it is not. 

Each person – poor, rich, or somewhere in between – has a story.  And we need to be willing to sit down with them and listen to it.  We need to be willing to understand what has brought them to today.  Each person is worthy of our time.  Each person is worthy of dignity and our respect.  Without those things, our self-interested aid is judgment disguised as pity.

There are men and women who are homeless today because of the domino effect of unexpected and untimely circumstances in their lives.  Divorce.  Illness.  Job loss.  Eviction.  A year ago they never imagined they would be soliciting a toothbrush from a staff member behind a counter.  And it could happen to any of us.  

There are men and women who are homeless today because of the crippling effects of untreated mental illness.  Sometimes it is caused by severe addiction.  Sometimes it is caused by trauma in a war zone.  Sometimes it develops as a result of living many years in isolation, huddled under a blanket on a side street while others turn away.  Sometimes paranoia develops when no one can be trusted. 

There are men and women who are living in poverty today because no one ever expected a different future for them.  They didn’t grow up dreaming.  They grew up surviving.  Some of them may have made some unfortunate choices along the way, and now they’ve been labeled.  They are humiliated into explaining why they made those choices, rather than dignified by our expectations of a thriving future for their families.  They are parents who care about their children and want them to have the best education available.  They are single parents who stretched already thin budgets to be a foster parent or even adopt a child because they recognized that he or she needed love more than nice clothes.  They are men who wish more than anything that they could work just one job in order to put food on the table.  They are women who fled abuse and had to start over again with nothing to their names.  

If there’s one thing I learned within the walls of that center in Atlanta, it’s that I’m not the only one who has a story.  It is simply arrogance for me to forget it.  Assumptions are just that.  And my willingness to listen and learn will go much further toward restoring lives – theirs and my own.

“Stop having a measuring rod for other people.  There is always one fact more in every man’s case about which we know nothing.  The first thing God does is to give us a spiritual spring-cleaning; there is no possibility of pride left in a man after that.  I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God.”  – Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest