Here’s the thing about helping without hurting

This summer I worked in Indianapolis with the organization YouthWorks. (If you are a 20-something Jesus-person looking for a summer job, please consider YouthWorks! If you are an in-charge youth-ministry person looking for a short term missions experience that is doing a lot of things right and looking for more ways to grow, please consider YouthWorks.) The way YouthWorks works is that they train four Jesus-loving, excited about youth young people (like me!) and then pack them into a mini-van, hand them a Google map, and send them out into over 70 cities around the United States, Canada, and Puerto Rico for a summer. Every week they send a group of 30-100 junior highers, high schoolers, families, and church groups (so, like, people) to lead and love.

YouthWorks works all year round building and establishing relationships with organizations and people who live in and love on these cities long-term so that those of us who breeze through for a few weeks each summer have our jobs pretty much set up for us. We call these long-termers, hear about and fall in love with the work they are doing, and then do whatever the heck they ask us do. And we show up with like, 15 high school boys who are so ready to show off how many heavy rocks they can lift, thus making it possible for the long-termers to talk to people and stuff, instead of using their valuable time to lift heavy rocks.

It’s a pretty great system.

Not a perfect system, but a pretty great one. And this summer this very system changed lives. I know it did. You know how I know? Tearful revelations like this – “Guys, Jesus died for us!” – from fifteen year old boys. And seventeen year old boys raising their hands up in the air and saying things like, “Suz, hearing this man’s story changed my life.” And groups of teenagers who had known each other for four days loving each other, supporting each other, and trusting each other enough to throw together an honesty hour – a time when they told each other things they had never told anybody else in the world. And instead of judgement or embarrassment, these teenagers embraced each other. Literally.

I also know because my life was changed.

My life was changed by my staff team, who taught me more about what it really means to esteem others as higher than yourself. My staff team, who taught me that being vulnerable is beautiful and worth it and showed me that telling your story means something. My brave, brave staff team who REALLY LISTENED to teenagers who felt like they were being silenced. And the brave, brave teenagers who counted us worthy to hear their stories.

One teenager wrote his story to me on a piece of paper and put it in my Indianapomail bag (our YW mail system) for me to find after he was already gone. BRAVE boy man who trusted silly me with his very person.

More than the youth, who were stinking wonderful and challenging and hilarious and brilliant and hard-working and bratty, the long-termers who live in and love on Indianapolis all year round every year changed me.

One man spoke to our group three out of the four weeks of our programming about poverty and homelessness and how the Church does and should engage in these issues. He told us about relationships he has with those experiencing homelessness and how the organizations he’s involved with (The Pour House and Legacy House) work with people to get them off the street – and to get them whatever else they need – medical services, recovery services, legal services, friendship services… basically just a lot of different great services.

That man changed my life! He really did. He changed the way I thought about how to help people without hurting them. You know, like the book When Helping Hurts, only this summer it became personal. Like one-on-one help. Like looking a man in the eye and shaking his hand and offering him dignity before offering him food. Like that kind of change. He talked about how our best intentions can be crippling to a person experiencing homelessness. In our grand effort to help, we are really helping those on the streets stay right where they are. And in Indianapolis, where so many people (like Wheeler Mission) are offering so many services for anyone who needs it, there really is no reason for someone to be living under a bridge.

He talked about a man he knows who was living under a bridge in a homeless community. He, the speaker, would go visit this man once a week or something, just to talk and to encourage him to go to a shelter and to get off the streets. Our speaker long-termer friend told us about the time that he was under the bridge talking to his friend and he said, “Come on man, why don’t you come in tonight?” And the man living under the bridge looked at his watch and said, “Are you kidding me? I’ve got a meatloaf coming in fifteen minutes!”

Every night a different church group came to this homeless community under this bridge in Indianapolis in order to feed the hungry.

Which sounds like a really great idea.

Until you realize that bringing this man food to his air mattress (also donated by a well-intentioned church group) under the bridge, means he has no reason to “come in” to change to grow to get out of homelessness. He can stay right where he is because he has a meatloaf coming once a week, for crying out loud! And nice hot meals every other night of the week.

After hearing these stories and hearing what our Indy-lover friend had to say about offering dignity and relationship instead of quick fixes, my thoughts on how to combat homelessness really changed. Which is why when I saw this (below) come up on my Facebook newsfeed, my first thought wasn’t, “What a great idea!” or “Why didn’t I think of that?!”


The first thing I thought was, what a great way to enable those experiencing homeless to stay right where they are without even leaving the comfort of your car! I also thought, instead of making their lives on the street more comfortable, why don’t we offer them a way to get off the street?

Our speaker-friend this summer introduced us to a Handbook of Help that he always carries on him to hand out to panhandlers on the street (instead of money or food). This Handbook of Help is a very well organized little booklet that contains all of the free services available in the city of Indianapolis. There are maps and helpful information like which organizations require ID and which are for men only or parents and their children only. Not only does our long-termer hand out the Handbook of Help but he introduces himself, shakes the panhandler’s hand, asks them their name and asks them how they are doing. Looks into their eyes and asks them how they are. And that is a how a relationship is born. And I believe that a relationship that starts with looking into someone’s eyes and genuinely being concerned about how they are doing is much more helpful than a bag of toothpaste and socks.

The tricky thing about Helping without Hurting is this question:

Isn’t handing out a bag of toiletries better than doing nothing?

Maybe it is. But maybe it’s also enabling someone to stay right where they are, at least until their “blessing bag” is empty.

I have zero of the answers. I have only my small collection of experiences and thoughts. I have only a burning in my gut to do something, to do something more than hand out a couple of pesos or give away my leftovers.

This summer I was able to do more. I was able to sort food at Gleaners that would go to food pantries where families could get what they needed while they got back on their feet. I was able to cut bread at Wheeler’s Men’s Shelter and then serve men a hot meal while the long-termers asked them how they were doing. I was able to hand out Handbooks of Help. I was able to support those who had dedicated their days to getting people off the streets and to pointing out Jesus to people in their communities by cleaning and painting and moving heavy things (or at least cheering teenage boys on and encouraging frequent water breaks while they moved heavy things).

If I didn’t know that those kind of dignifying things were an option, I might be content with “blessing bags” or giving away a smashed granola bar that just happens to be in my purse to the woman rooting through garbage trying to feed herself. But the more I learn about long-term, invested people-lovers who are offering more than a quick fix, who are getting out of the warmth and and comfort of their cars and getting involved in people’s lives, I am challenged to do more.

I’m still not sure what that more is, but I hope you’ll join me in dreaming and praying about the “more” – the ways that we can dignify our fellow humans experiencing homelessness instead of offering a distant short-term fix and how we can turn our good intentions to even better actions.

I want to learn how to help without hurting in my city, in my neighborhood.

There’s gotta be a better way to “care” for people than handing them a bag of stuff out your car window, right? Right?!

5 thoughts on “Here’s the thing about helping without hurting

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