There is a program in Portland, as well as many other cities, in which the most needy homeless are granted an opportunity to move into an apartment for six months, cost free. The idea behind this is to give a homeless person an opportunity to get off the street permanently. At the very least, for six months, they are no longer homeless.
However there are large percentage of homeless who are unable to stay in an apartment even for six months. Sometimes they leave of their own accord, but often they are thrown out due to drug use or for too many people in the apartment. Some hear this and think “how ungrateful.” The social workers who made a huge effort to get them into apartments are upset because the effort seems pointless. However, the reality is more complex.
The homeless who moved into the apartment understood and agreed to the requirements of the apartment building. However, when they were on the street, they learned about the need for community living for survival—the benefit of one becomes the benefit of all. And so how can they, who received housing through no effort of their own, not share it with their friends who helped him out when he was in need? So the apartment quickly becomes full of people, some bringing their addictions with them. But what else could they do?
Some of the same folks, after living in an apartment, find that after living for years on the street four walls are too enclosing, too claustrophobic—the air is too still, too stifling. There are too many people around them, it is too noisy. And they don’t know that they want to take on the responsibility of paying for bills again. It all seems too difficult to deal with and they aren’t sure they will ever be ready to live a “normal” life again.
Unfortunately, many of those working with the homeless, trying to get the homeless apartments or trying to find “solutions” to the “homeless problem” don’t know about these issues. They can’t imagine that an apartment isn’t a great solution for every homeless person.
In James chapter one, there is a wise statement: “Everyone should be quick to listen and slow to speak.” James is saying that it is easy to make assumptions about how other people think or what they really want. When we have something that we really need, we assume that everyone has that same need. When we find something that is a solution for ourselves, we assume that everyone must have that same solution, offered to them in the same way. God, however, recognizes that each person has different needs, and God offers them different solutions to their unique problems. This is why although Jesus is the answer, the question looks different for each person and the solution Jesus offers differs depending on the question. God gives the Spirit to speak to each person in their own unique way, that no one can replicate.
For those of us who aren’t too sure, we are not God. And we don’t know the hearts or motivations of people. There is only one way for us to find out: we must ask and listen. We must trust what they say and act out of love in response to their need. Most of us recognize that if we want to speak to a person from another country about the gospel, we would probably need to learn another language, or perhaps learn a bit about their different point of view.
If we were going to speak to a Native American or a naturalized immigrant to our nation, we understand that we would have to communicate a little differently because we do not know their cultural perspective, and we don’t want to offend them by accident. Those who live in poverty live in a different culture than those of us who have always had a middle class life. They have different assumptions, different ways of communicating, different aspirations, different ideas of how the world works. They have different needs and different ways of meeting those needs than we who have always had our needs met.
Ruby Payne spoke of Hidden Rules among class groups that are basically cultural characteristics (you can find the lists here) These descriptions help us realize that there are cultural distinctions between classes. However, any list of characteristics do not apply to all people of these classes, and some of them not even the majority of the people who represent each class.
In the end, even if we learn a person’s culture, their language, their mode of communication, their background and their worldview, in the end, if we want to understand the person in front of us, we must talk to them and listen carefully to what they say. Only if we spend time with a poor person (or any person) can we expect to minister to them.
Only by listening can we express our care for them.
Only by listening can we know what another person’s needs really are.
Only by listening can we participate in being part of their solution.