Several months ago, as the Augusta Salvation Army HR Manager, I was given permission to spend more time assisting at The Salvation Army homeless shelter, which is called the Center of Hope. I wanted to meet some of the people whom we serve, and understand their circumstances better, how we case manage them, and observing how we help others move from potential desperation to finding housing, employment, and hope for a better future.
I met several of the men during afternoon “check-in” as it is called, starting around 4:00 PM each afternoon at the shelter. At times, I would assist in using a security wand to check them and their belongings, to make sure no weapons were being brought into the building. I got to know them by name, and learned about their backgrounds, circumstances, and challenges to getting past their temporary (up to 90 days) stay in the shelter.
Most of the men were friendly and, over time, looked forward to my visiting and sitting with them during dinner to hear about their daily activities. My first impressions gave me the idea that the men were mostly working to resolve their specific issues, while sweltering outside in the 95-degree heat. Each day, shelter guests were generally required to leave the Center of Hope at 8:00 AM, to use the time before 4:00 PM check-in to seek employment, follow up with doctor’s appointments, or meet with our not-for-profit community partners to address and resolve underlying issues affecting their homelessness. My prevailing thinking was that if we could just ramp up our case management activities, surely our men and women would be encouraged enough to seek out and find solutions, with success being within reach.
While this premise was true in some cases, far too many lacked the motivation to proactively take action to bring about favorable resolution. Whether this was due to unresolved mental health, substance abuse, or medical issues, lacking family support, or just getting comfortable living “off the grid”, so many seemed stuck, reverting often to a child-like mentality, believing that someone would give them food, a bicycle, transportation, or whatever they might need, and they learned to be okay with this way of life. When I would inquire about what specifically caused homelessness, the answers often seemed to center on unresolved health concerns, and bad luck with money, hearing about their funds being taken from them.
With my decades of work in healthcare, addressing obvious health issues, to me, was an easy one to fix. I arranged for a couple of shelter clients to go back to a medical provider, one, named Mike, who had deteriorating feet due to Diabetes, and needed follow up care, and another who had been a burn victim whose bandages were filthy, and he needed care for seizures. We arranged transportation for Eddie to go Doctor’s Hospital, which specialized in burn care. Both Mike and Eddie were hospitalized and made great progress due to this intervention. As weeks passed after treatment, both men seemed more motivated, yet not enough to take the action needed to resolve their homelessness. Eddie had family in South Carolina who might help him, but he didn’t want their help, and seemed okay with his current state. Mike said he had money in the bank to help fund housing, but later left the shelter unannounced to be seen roaming the streets.
I am learning that homelessness is becoming more and more a way of life, which some apparently prefer over the complexities of following rules, adapting to societal norms, and taking personal responsibility to live a better life. The guiding principle in working with shelter clients is to aid all who enter the shelter, with the idea of helping “set each person up for success”, as I like to call it. For those who embrace this approach, we will proactively work with them to help resolve issues and find sustainable housing. However, for those who revert to a constant stream of excuses and do little to help themselves, we have no choice but to limit their shelter stay, to make room for those who are truly serious about resolving their homelessness.
As Christians, we are called to extend the love of Christ, offering hope to those who have none, encouraging all to find their purpose, to apply their God-given gifts and talents, for their good and to support others as well. We read in scripture that Jesus cured and gave hope to many, yet he did not require follow up among his “clients” to ensure sustainability. We certainly can’t control outcomes but must be ready to take care of what God puts in front of us each day, and do our best to address what we can, knowing changing hearts is the business of Jesus, and not ours. In all things, we too must pray for guidance to know what God has in store for us as well.