(RNS) – When he started working at the Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that hopes to “break the cycle of homelessness through radical hospitality,” author and attorney Kevin Nye thought he had all the answers.
Nye soon found out he was mistaken.
His job was to befriend the people he met, not save them; see them as people and not as problems to be solved.
In his new book, “Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness” (out Tuesday, Aug. 9, from Herald Press), the Fuller Seminary grad says many of his fellow Christians are making the same mistake. Too often they offer cash or bag meals instead of relationships. Or they look away and move on.
Nye suggests trying to see homeless people as if they were Jesus.
“If we actually saw Jesus by the side of the road and recognized him as the Son of God, our saviour, we probably wouldn’t just be rolling down our window and giving him a five,” Nye told Religion News Service in a recent phone interview. “We’re hoping to stop and talk and get into some sort of relationship where we do a lot more listening than talking.”
Nye suggests this approach can help fellow Christians and others avoid transactional and paternalistic models that dehumanize the very people who are served.
“When we encounter Christ in the face of the poor, we should seek not so much to transform them, but to be transformed ourselves,” Nye advises in the book’s opening chapter, using insights from years of first-hand experience as a homeless service worker. in Los Angeles as well as his theological training.
RNS spoke to Nye about her book and ways to better address homelessness.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
You recognize that when you first started out in homeless services, you were caught up in a savior mentality. How has this changed?
I entered the field with the idea that I had all these resources — time, energy and common sense — to give to this work and to this population. I wanted to make a difference and be a hero.
But my first responsibility with my job (in Central LA) was to walk around with a clipboard and get the name of everyone who came in, if they were willing to give it. It is a very humiliating task. My goal was just to get to know everyone. I quickly realized that I needed to be in a relationship. Authentic community cannot be top-down or transactional.
In the book, you take issue with the term “service resistant”. Why is that?
If someone says no to a service we provide, we should ask them what we did wrong in designing the program rather than asking them what is wrong. I like to watch the barriers. What could prevent this person from accepting help? The program may not meet their needs. They may just need more time or you may need to build trust. You can’t just walk up to someone you’ve never seen before and expect them to trust you with their health and safety.
You write that faith-based organizations can be among the strongest proponents of what is called the “merit-based model” for ending homelessness. What are your concerns about this approach?
In the merit-based model, people must earn their way through a process that culminates in independent housing. Often people have to be clean and sober to get into a shelter, and then in the shelter they follow the rules and can move into shared accommodation. If they continue to stay clean and sober and follow the treatment plan offered to them, they may be able to move into interim housing. In the long term, if they stay the course, they will finally be able to benefit from housing.
One thing to note is that it just doesn’t work, statistically speaking. People are more likely to end their homelessness on their own, without any help, than to end their homelessness with programs like this. Ultimately, this model has so many obstacles and so many opportunities to fail. When they do, programs like this blame that person for leaving the program rather than asking, is this program broken?
Why do you think Housing First models (which provide housing before other services) work better and are more biblical?
Housing First has been proven to work much more effectively, and that’s common sense. If you provide someone with a safe base and a place where they can sleep well every night behind a locked door, receive mail and have neighbors, then they are much more capable of rebuilding their life, than they are. whether it’s finding work or getting treatment for mental health, addiction or physical disability.
Housing becomes the springboard to flourish.
On top of that, it’s the way God treats people. God is the One who takes broken people and offers life, offers abundance.
Why shouldn’t Christian ministries define homelessness primarily as a spiritual problem?
It goes back to that pernicious myth that homelessness and poverty are the result of spiritual and moral failure. It’s sort of what I call the prosperity gospel trickle down – if you’re faithful, God will bless you with riches. The side (of the prosperity gospel) that we don’t talk about is the idea that if you are not blessed with material wealth, it must be a sign that God is cursing you or forsaking you.
What are the most effective ways you have seen in churches and other places of worship to address homelessness?
Churches can be involved in creating and maintaining affordable housing by donating land or supporting initiatives and candidates to build more affordable housing.. For those who are already doing homelessness programs, I really encourage moving from a transactional model to a relational model. Rather than having volunteers all in a kitchen or behind a serving table, have them come out, sit down, and eat with the people there. Instead of offering a take-out meal, allow people to rest for a few hours.
Something we are seeing across the country right now is a move towards criminalizing the existence of homeless people. There are fewer and fewer places where they are allowed to sit in public without being asked to move. I think churches have a lot of space they can open up to give rest to weary people.
You organize Narcan training for Christians. What is Narcan, and how does your faith inform your belief in the importance of being equipped to use it?
Narcan is an overdose reversal medication for opioids. If someone overdoses on an opioid, whether it’s heroin, fentanyl, or a prescription opioid like OxyContin, it clears the opioids from the receptors and essentially revives a person. It’s such a shock that first responders often refer to it as a resurrection.
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If you are between the ages of 25 and 64, drug overdose is the number one cause of death in this country. And because we believe that people who use drugs are bad people rather than people in pain or in need of treatment, we have been very slow to respond. For me, it’s a matter of faith. This comes back to the idea of grace. Using Narcan and teaching people how to use Narcan to give people endless chances in life seems to be the most consistent with the Christian doctrine of grace of anything I could imagine.
Near the end of your book, you describe an event in which you served toasts to the lawyer for the women of the Center. Can you talk about the theological significance of offering something as seemingly “extra” as an avocado toast?
There’s been this talk on social media about how if millennials want to buy homes, they should stop buying gourmet coffee and avocado toast. It triggers this inherent belief that there are certain things that only rich people should have, and everyone else should be content with all the meager things available to them until they have advanced economically. Again, it comes back to this idea of the prosperity gospel.
To counter this narrative, I decided to make and serve avocado toast to the exact people who others think shouldn’t have it or don’t deserve it. Very often, when we provide resources to poor or homeless people, we believe that beggars cannot choose. That they should be happy with anything we give them, even if it’s something we wouldn’t want to eat. But God provides in abundance. We have everything we need if we could learn to manage it properly. The gospel says that we are all children of God and that we all deserve not only to have our needs met, but also to live in a way that contributes to joy and fulfillment.
We also deserve this because of who God is and because of who God says we are.
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