Brrr! Temperatures recently plummeted across the northern United States to record lows due to a polar vortex spilling sub-zero arctic air further south than normal. This can be a life-threatening situation, especially if you’re living on the streets.
As of December 2017, a HUD report stated 193,000 Americans are doing just that – living unsheltered on the streets. A total of 554,000 Americans are considered homeless. The situation is even more shocking in the United Kingdom where an organization called Shelter estimates 1 in every 200 persons are homeless.
In America and the UK, a lack of affordable housing is cited as a primary cause of homelessness. You may not be able to provide housing for a homeless person, but you can provide food without breaking your budget.
This is what I discovered when I had two personal encounters with homeless persons within one month. Homeless people used to ask for money, but in my recent experiences, they’ve wanted food.
We were walking out of a restaurant on a chilly November night last year when our family was approached by a fairly well dressed and articulate man. He informed us that he was waiting for a bus to a homeless shelter and could really use the leftover dinner we were holding if we didn’t need it.
Oh my. All he wanted was our leftovers. Thankfully, we had a lot of them.
The second experience occurred at night on the streets of New York City where I was walking with my son and his girlfriend. We passed a large black canvas tarp on the sidewalk and didn’t think anything of it, until it started talking. There was a person under the tarp asking for food. Fortunately, a market right across the street provided all that was needed.
The importance of listening
The first thing I learned from both of these encounters was the importance of listening. In each case, the homeless person told me exactly what they wanted. These are people in extreme difficulty that also have desires and wishes just like you and I do. Listening to their requests and their personal stories gives them hope and a sense of significance.
Secondly, food is cheap and easy to acquire for a homeless person. Here is a list of inexpensive ways that you can provide food:
- Buy $5 or $10 gift cards from McDonald’s or any other food or restaurant chain. This allows a homeless person to not only eat but to get warm.
- Pizza, by the slice or a whole pie, will only set you back about $10. One ministry I spoke to bought whole pizzas and drove around with them, passing out slices as they saw a homeless person. Often homeless people will gather in transportation hubs, such as train stations or bus terminals, so they are not difficult to find.
- Ask them what they want. The homeless person we encountered in New York City was vegan, so we provided vegetables, fruit, and coffee. Even in the big apple, where prices tend to be high, it only cost about $12.
- Give a few canned goods to a food bank, church, or organization that feeds the homeless. My church has teamed up with a local food bank that feeds 200 homeless families a week. Our congregation helps supply canned and dry goods. Even $1-5 worth of dried and canned goods will make a difference.
- For those who want to do more, get your church involved in partnering with a food bank or a homeless shelter. Or just do it yourself. A quick google search on keywords like “homeless shelter” or “mission” or “food bank” will display organizations in your area.
- Last but perhaps easiest, take a look in your own food pantry. Did you buy too many canned vegetables or dry goods before the holidays? Have your kids’ tastes changed in the last six months? I found myself with a bulk-sized box of cereal that no one wanted to eat anymore in our house. I checked the expiration date and it was still good, so Instead of throwing it away, I found a local church that takes ongoing food donations. Cost to me – $0.
When I think of a homeless person, I’m reminded of the parable of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. It’s striking that the sheep were busy taking care of the needs of others without knowing that they were blessing Jesus:
“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?” (verses 37-38 NIV). The goats, on the other hand, seemed to have other priorities: “He (Jesus) will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me’” (verse 45).
As you have the opportunity, please remember “the least of these.” In doing so, even with just a cup of coffee, you’ll also bless Jesus.