What do you think of when you think of the homeless? Be honest. I used to think they were lazy alcoholics and drug addicts living under bridges standing around warming barrels. That’s what Hollywood always told me and I believed it. But it’s not true.
The 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report reveals approximately 610,042 people experienced homelessness last year, 36% of which were families. Numbers don’t convey the real challenges faced by families in homelessness or near homelessness. Recently a documentary was produced titled American Winter. The film explores the lives of seven families caught in poverty because of loss of work, health and other issues. The faces represent the 43% of Americans living in poverty or near poverty. These are the stories of our neighbors. They are not drunks, drug addicts or welfare abusers. They are Americans trying to live the American Dream, but as one family says that dream is not of a bright future. That dream is about the next meal, keeping the lights on, just making it.
From the web site for American Winter you can watch senate testimony provided by several of the families on the state of the American Dream. For too many that dream is a nightmare. So many of the housing issues, employment issues, health issues underlying the push into deeper poverty and homelessness involve legal issues yet the families in the movie, like 80% of low-income Americans, were unable to find legal help. Without such help they rely on social service agencies and government help to provide a safety net while they transition. Our net must be strong. With help our homeless transition out of homelessness. Only 17% remain homeless more than one year. But with a tattering safety net and lack of access to our justice system, we stand to increase the cost to all Americans by not investing in those who need our help most.
Some in the media treat the homeless like second class citizens. Yet 138,149 are innocent children. 57,849 are homeless veterans. They are praised for the heroism in keeping us from harm and quickly forgotten as they try to reintegrate into America. A major report found that four of the top ten unmet needs of these homeless veterans involve legal issues for which they need, but cannot find, help. We are America and we can do better.
One encouraging note from the movie, America Winter, is the response of churches. The film was in no way a Christian film, but it could not avoid that many of those helping the families in need were Christian churches. What a powerful testimony. Our actions speak louder than words and we should be demonstrating the love of Christ by doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God. When we increase access to justice through legal help and hope we can change the story. See how our friends at Administer Justice are doing that through this short video. Let’s recognize we are all created in God’s image and humbly serve our neighbor in need. Let mercy triumph over judgment as we seek justice for the poor and vulnerable. The movie demonstrates the powerful ministry opportunity a Good Samaritan can have when they give help and hope to a wounded neighbor. Let’s not miss this opportunity. Let’s dare to see the needs of our neighbor and get involved. Let’s go and do likewise.