The world of the homeless is the darker side of our world. It is inhabited by vagrants, drug addicts, and the powerless. This world has its own rules, customs, pleasures, and pains, but lacks meaning and peace. And those who enter this world struggle to leave it.
Ten years ago, I visited the house of Mother Irina. That’s what the people I found there called her, even though she wasn’t their real mother. Somewhere behind a block of flats, behind an overturned trailer, an underground room—with just enough space to kneel on water pipes—was a place to call home. It was the sewerage area of the blocks of flats, near the Northern Train Station in Bucharest, and the pipes kept them warm in winter and cool in summer. By the light of a candle, I could see 17 curious faces looking at me through the steam. Calu (meaning ”The Horse”) was the guardian of the family in the pipes, the cheerful one, the jokester of the gang. Monica, a young woman from Reghin was breastfeeding her baby when I visited—the child was born in the pipes. Fulger (meaning ”Lightning”) was the energetic child, bringing the others news about anything going on in the world. All of them, and others, formed a family, made by agreement, understanding, and respect. Mother Irina was the oldest. Everyone listened to her. Her age and wisdom made everyone respect her. The money earned each day was shared with everyone in the family, and Mother Irina made sure everything was done right.
After we became friends, we found out that their need for candles was an opportunity for them to gain the trust of many different charities, who supplied some of their needs. But in reality, they had many boxes of candles. This was because, as they explained to us, each of those sent out to beg earned more on a daily basis than a regular employee would earn in a month. The religious songs they sang, the religious radio station they listened to, the worn Bible, and the biblical texts known by heart were all ploys they were using to win our sympathy, and convince us of our their earnestness. We’d found this out after they refused the rent we offered to pay for them, and the job we offered them.
“How could I live on an average salary? The drugs alone cost me three or four times more”, Calu told us. We received variations of this answer from most of them, and our offer of employment was turned down.
They had become accustomed to their world, and they did not want to leave it. Among them we found rich young people, a deputy’s son, a former teacher, but also abused children, children fleeing from orphanages, and young people without parents or from dysfunctional families. Many of them were born into this underworld, but were not without hope. Among them was an old man who ended up on the street. Ashamed and still unable to beg or steal, he was helped by those who could do it professionally. Their world was a world with many shadows, but it also had sparkles of generosity. It is a world in which you can make a difference only if you live in it.
Homeless and hopeless
There are almost 11 million homeless people in Europe, and that number is growing. In Romania, between 10 000 and 15 000 people are homeless. Of these, some live in canals, on the street, or near landfills, and others, not having a stable and legal home, live temporarily in shelters, in friends’ houses, or in social institutions. The causes of homelessness are many and varied. Endogenous causes most often refer to behavioural pathologies: fear, maladaption, and disobedience to rules. Exogenous causes are related to the social and economic context, and depend on state social policies: divorce, job loss, death of parents, and physical or mental illness.
Once on the street, people who ended up there, regardless of the reason, develop a survival mentality which keeps them living hand to mouth, day to day. This mentality creates a pattern of thinking that, as time goes by, steals their hope of reintegration into society and forms a vicious circle of helplessness. Many who become unemployed, and then homeless, often become addicted to drugs. While such a cyclical situation appears entirely hopeless, there are also happy cases of professional reintegration—almost all of them, however, were possible with the intervention of an outside source.
The House of Bread: a glimpse of hope
A successful example of helping homeless people is a project run by Dana Borcea. After getting involved in a number of volunteer projects, providing food to the homeless, she decided to take in six people who needed social reintegration. She had realised that the greatest chance a homeless person has to reintegrate into society comes from taking care of their frailties, and being their role model. After working in Spain for a while, she came to Romania and invested her money in a care home for elderly homeless people. Casa Păinii (“The House of Bread”) has become a place associated with compassion and faith transformed into hope and life for many old people on the street.
Non-governmental organisations, associated either with religious denominations or inspired by religious values and beliefs, have the ability to help homeless people in a unique way, and with high a likelihood of helping people to socially integrate. The religious approach is a holistic one: it considers the needs of people as a whole whose dimensions (physical, mental, social, intellectual and spiritual) influence each other. Religious organisations run 60% of the night shelters in the United States. This percentage does not include places of sanctuary offered by churches, synagogues, or mosques.
The Gubbio is a project that includes several churches in the U.S., churches that are actively involved in helping the poor and especially the homeless. The Church of St. Boniface in San Francisco provides blankets, hygiene kits, and clothing every week to all 150 people who take shelter inside the church at night. Doug Pierce, the project coordinator, said that, in his opinion, “the church becomes a sanctuary when it is full of the poor.”
The sentiments expressed by those who help the homeless are often touching. “Being with the poor in the church is our way of telling them we love them”. Others say, “Sleeping in church with the poor is like spending a night with God.”
Another example is The Window project of St. Joseph’s Cathedral in San Jose, California, which offers homeless people the opportunity to each have a mailbox. In this way, needy people can open a bank account, make documents, keep their correspondence or receive their social pensions. With this tiny leg-up in the world, the fate of a homeless person can change. These examples are just a few of the many that make the church and its organisations a model to follow for government institutions.
But Pastor John Steinbruck believes that “what the church does is not enough. While millions of dollars are spent on church buildings, almost nothing is spent on homeless people”. Although churches have a better involvement than government institutions, Pastor Steinbruck’s view is shared by several religious leaders: the church must be a hospital.
The church is a school of prevention
However, the Bible defines the mission of the church as preaching the gospel and preparing the world for the second coming of Jesus. This preparation can only be achieved through metanoia, the transformation of the mind through the process of spiritual rebirth. In this sense, the church is rather a school, and a pastor’s function of preaching is united with that of teaching and instructing (see Ephesians 4:11, 12). Both the preaching of the gospel and the preparation for the arrival of Jesus revolve around God’s Word, and it is “living and working” (Hebrews 4:12), able to change attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours.
First and foremost, the church has the duty to teach people to love and to give. This becomes the best way to solve social problems.
The more personal help is, the more useful it is. The institutionalisation of charity and doing good displaces true altruistic motivation from the person to the organisation, and thus, it dissipates somewhat. The impact of personal help, from person to person, is greater than that which is achieved through institutions. Personal involvement impresses and empowers the person in need, and facilitates change through a relationship. At the same time, the helper is positively affected, too.
The problem of homelessness is just the tip of a growing iceberg. The sanctuaries for the poor, the night shelters, although too thinly spread, do represent reassurance that society and its institutions can offer a first, small step towards solving the harsh situation. But even measures such as vocational reintegration centres cannot be successful if they are considered the only solution. The main solution is to help the vulnerable population stay off the streets, through education and government action. Given that the chances that homeless people will professionally reintegrate are extremely low, social protection institutions and organisations involved in social projects should be primarily concerned with prevention methods. The church, the school, the vocational training and reintegration centres, the psychological offices, and the social protection departments are all institutions which can help prevent homelessness.
As far as the churches are concerned, religious ceremonies reach their true meaning only if they are expressed with genuine altruism, compassion, and love (Jeremiah 22:1-3; Isaiah 58:6-7).
Here, then, is the role of the church in solving the problems of homeless people: the church is called to be an example of service to its members, to motivate its members to social involvement initiatives, and to defend the rights of those in need. It does this either through religious education or public advocacy for the homeless. Such initiatives can lead to legislative changes, government initiatives and even the creation of projects for the prevention or reintegration of the homeless. The world of the homeless is dark and often hopeless, and as such, it needs our help.
Ștefăniţă Poenariu is the president of the Holistic Christian Education Association, which operates Transylvania International School.