11 Important Lessons I’ve Learned from Working with the Homeless

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Important Lessons I've Learned from the Homeless

In the fall of 2017, after reading the book The Hole in Our Gospel, I started volunteering at a local homeless shelter as a way to give back and help people in need within my own community.

I had served meals at a different homeless shelter during my freshman year of college and it was a very rewarding experience. I thought about doing that again many times, but I never took the initiative to actually make it happen. Eventually, in 2017 I knew I needed to stop thinking I didn’t have the time and just take action.

When I contacted the volunteer coordinator, I offered to help out with serving meals or washing dishes. I prefer working behind the scenes, so that type of job would be ideal for me. But the volunteer coordinator went to my church (we didn’t really know each other) and he said they needed help with their men’s Bible study.

I didn’t really want to do it, but I knew I needed to help in some way, so I agreed to it.

For the past year and about four months, I’ve been going into the shelter once a week (although I do miss some weeks) for a Bible study with the residents of their men’s program. While they are technically homeless, all of the guys that I work with are staying at the shelter, so they are not living on the streets currently. They are provided with meals, a bed, and other necessities. They’re also participating in life skills classes with the goal of getting a job and getting back on their feet financially. They may be in the program anywhere from a few weeks to two years.

Most of what I do there is completely outside my comfort zone. I’d much rather serve food or wash dishes, but so far I’ve stuck with it because I feel like I’m there for a reason, even if I don’t know what that reason is.

The dynamic of the group is really interesting. Usually, there are 20-30 men at the Bible study and right now there is a chaplain that organizes it and then I am the only volunteer. Of the guys in the program, some of them enjoy being a part of the Bible study and they participate in the discussions. Other guys don’t want to be there, and they are only there because it’s a requirement of being in the program. If they had somewhere else to go, they would.

The vast majority of guys in the program are just coming out of prison. They are usually referred by the prison or the prison chaplain, from what I’ve been told. Some of them are required to be in this program, or one like it, as a condition of their release. If those guys leave the program, they go back to prison.

One of the nice things about volunteering for the Bible study instead of another type of project is that I’ve been able to get to know a lot of the guys in the program, and I consider them to be friends.

My experience there has already taught me a lot. It has reinforced some things that I already knew, and it has led me to look at things from a completely different perspective than I have in the past. Some of it applies to money and finances, and other lessons are just about life. I wanted to write this article to share some of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

1. Some People Start Life at a Disadvantage

From the discussions I’ve had with the guys in the program, the one thing that stands out to me more than any other is that most of them faced huge challenges that I’ve never faced. In many cases, I’d say they never had a chance for a normal, productive, healthy life.

I’ve heard stories of terrible physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. The guys in the program are all adults, but some are young and some are old. One thing they have in common, almost all of them had very difficult family situations when they were growing up, and that has contributed to problems throughout their lives.

It’s easy to look at someone in prison, or someone who has served time in the past, and say that person’s struggles are a result of their own poor decisions. I’m not minimizing accountability, but the truth is, not everyone faces the same challenges or has the same opportunities. I’m not sure how my life would have turned out if I had no good adult role models when I was growing up.

I have yet to come across anyone in the program that had what I would consider a healthy family situation as a child.

2. Good Parenting is Critical

Going along with the previous point, this has led me to a greater desire to be a good father to my two kids.  I’ve seen that how I raise my kids will have a huge impact on them for the rest of their lives.

It’s not a responsibility to be taken lightly.

Very few of the guys that I’ve worked with in the program had a father who was involved in their lives in a positive way when they were growing up. For the most part, their fathers were either not around, or not very loving and supportive.

I fail as a parent a lot. But I’m trying to get better and trying to spend quality time with my kids and be there for them in whatever way they need me. Hopefully, I’ll be a positive influence on my kids, not a negative one.

3. Our Decisions Have Long-Lasting Consequences

As I mentioned, most of the guys in the program have served time in prison. They’re now done with their prison sentence and are working to put their lives back together, but they’re still suffering the consequences of past decisions and mistakes. Many of them struggle to get a job because of their record, and when they do get a job they are on a very short leash.

They want to turn their lives around, but the mistakes from their past are sometimes hard to overcome.

This isn’t always about legal issues, prison, or jobs. Sometimes the poor decisions and consequences are related to marriages and other family relationships. Working to improve relationships with parents, siblings, and kids is something I hear about pretty often.

4. Addiction Can Cost You Everything

Drug and alcohol issues are a very common problem for guys in the program. Of course, it’s probably not a surprise that men in a homeless shelter tend to have a history of drug or alcohol addiction. We know how damaging addictions can be, but that’s only been reinforced through the guys that I’ve gotten to know.

Drug and alcohol addictions damage relationships, lead to financial problems, and can even result in poor choices that lead to prison. If you’re struggling with an addiction, do whatever you can to get help as soon as possible.

5. Very Little of What We Have is Truly Necessary

How much do we really need?

Most of us, myself included, think of a lot things as necessities. In reality, there is very little that is truly necessary.

Several months ago, I was talking with one of the guys after the Bible study. He had served multiple prison sentences, and in some ways he was more comfortable in prison and struggling to adjust to life on the outside. He told me that pretty much everything we pursue in life, he sees as a distraction.

The shelter meets the basic needs of the guys in the program by providing food and a place to sleep. They also get things like shampoo and soap, and I think clothes if needed. I’m not sure about you, but there are a lot of other things that I look at as necessities. But the truth is, we really don’t need that much.

6. Change is Possible, But Not Easy

One of the things I love about working with the men in the program is that I can see their desire to improve their lives. I don’t hear excuses for mistakes that have put them in difficult circumstances.

A lot of them have already made big progress, but it doesn’t come easily. Changing habits, overcoming additions, fixing broken relationships, and proving yourself to be more than your past failures all take time and consistent effort.

7. A Community Can Be a Very Powerful Thing

By volunteering at the shelter, I’ve seen the power of community in a few ways. First, the community has a huge impact on this program and this organization’s existence. All of the programs are funded by donors, and without individuals or corporate supporters, none of it would be possible. Every week I see people who have a chance at a better future because of the generosity of others.

The other example of community comes from the guys in the program. The residents there spend a lot of time around each other, and those who are there for a while get to know each other very well. It’s great to see how they look out for each other and step up when someone needs help.

8. Discipline is Important in So Many Ways

Overcoming difficult situations requires a lot of discipline. This applies to financial troubles, addictions, relationship issues, jobs, and so much else in life.

A lot of the guys in the program have the discipline and patience to stick with it and truly improve their lives. I know a few guys who have been there almost two years going through classes and life skills training.

But it’s also extremely common for guys to come and go quickly. In a lot of cases, they’re not leaving under the best terms. Some have made mistakes and gone back to prison. Others have been dismissed from the program for poor choices. And others have chosen to leave.

The men who make the most of the program have the discipline to stick with things that may be tough.

9. Poverty is More About Circumstances and Decisions Than it is About Intelligence or Laziness

Something that’s stood out to me is that the guys in the program are very intelligent. They’re also hard workers. Most of the jobs that they’re able to get are manual labor of some sort. They seem to be very motivated and want to work hard to take advantage of the opportunity.

From my perspective, their circumstances (like the environment that they grew up in) have had a big impact on the position they’re in right now. They are also, for the most part, living through the consequences of past mistakes. The circumstances aren’t an excuse for the mistakes, but those circumstances are part of the explanation for why those mistakes have been made.

When I hear the stories of how these guys were raised, it’s no wonder that they’ve had trouble as adults. If you have no one to teach you (and show you by example) how to make good decisions, of course you’re going to be more likely to make mistakes.

If you look at poverty around the world, much of it is related to circumstances. People in Africa and other poor parts of the world have almost no chance. They’re not poor because they are lazy or unintelligent. They’re poor because they were born into an incredibly difficult situation, and it takes everything they have just to survive.

I haven’t avoided poverty and homelessness because of intelligence or hard work. The circumstances I was born and raised in gave me a huge advantage over some people.

When you see a homeless person, don’t assume that they’re lazy. You have no idea what circumstances led to the position that they’re in now.

We’re all responsible for the decisions that we make, but not all bad decisions have serious consequences. I’ve made plenty of bad decisions in my life, but fortunately they haven’t had life-altering consequences.

10. There are Many Ways You Will Be Blessed for Serving

When I started volunteering at the shelter I wanted to help people in need. Hopefully, during that time I’ve been able to help in some way, but I can say for sure that I have been blessed by it.

I’ve learned more from the guys in the program than they’ve learned from me, for sure.

We shouldn’t volunteer or serve for selfish reasons, but when you serve or give, you’ll be blessed as well. Of course, we all know the saying “it’s better to give than to receive.”

11. It’s Not My Place to Judge Anyone

I think it’s our natural human reaction to judge others, even if it’s not what we’re supposed to do.

I know most of the guys in the program have served time in prison. I’ve never asked any of them if they’ve been in prison or what they were convicted of, but sometimes it comes up in the discussion. Some of the guys have been convicted of things that are hard for me to come to grips with. My role is to be some sort of encouragement and assistance to them, with the hope that they don’t make the same mistakes in the future. It’s not my job to judge them for the things they’ve done. I certainly don’t want people judging me for my worst moments.

The past can’t be changed, but hopefully with a second chance and some help, the future is a lot better.

If you’ve read this far, thanks for taking the time. I hope the things I’ve written about in this article have impacted you in some way. If you’ve ever felt led to serve the homeless, I encourage you to take action. There are plenty of ways that you can help, and I know you’ll be blessed as well.

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