This is an excerpt from the free “Serving the Homeless in Motels” eBook, which you can download here.
1. Curb your inclination to want to try to solve everyone’s problems. It doesn’t make you a less compassionate person. It just keeps you sane. For one thing, you rob someone of their dignity when you try to take care of everything for them. It takes a while to develop a sense of what’s right and what’s too much.
Go slowly. How can you do too much, you may ask? They need everything, don’t they? You’ll know that you’ve done too much the first time you have to refuse someone something and all hell breaks loose because you’ve taken care of everything else up to now. Resist the urge to set yourself up as Santa Claus or the Good Fairy. It’s really quite insulting to your clients and exhausting for you. We probably lose more volunteers because of this than anything else.
Trying to take care of everything doesn’t work. It doesn’t do anybody any good and eventually it just burns you out. Then you leave and feel guilty the rest of your life. As Project Dignity founder Linda Dunlap was fond of saying, “Love doesn’t always look like you think it should”. She was 100% right. (She usually was.)
The purpose of what we do is to show love. Sometimes, just like you do with your children, the most loving thing you can do is to say “No”. Always, always, always say it with compassion and love. Don’t stumble around and apologize. Let your yes be yes and your no be no.
2. The fact you aren’t homeless and can come and go at will, coupled with all of the services you provide gives you a huge amount of power with your clients. I learned this the hard way one day. Luckily once was enough to change my attitude forever. I think anyone who makes a decision to serve as a volunteer does it out of the purest of motives, meaning only good things for the people they serve. Certainly they never mean harm, but it happens.
One day out in the motels I was feeling tired, cranky, whatever—it doesn’t really matter now, this isn’t about me (and that is the point). My mind & heart weren’t in the right place. One of our clients, Sandy, complained that we didn’t have something she needed. I snapped back just as crossly as she did. The transformation in Sandy was instant and devastating to me. She cringed, she actually cringed. She deflated right in front of my eyes and began to apologize profusely.
We smoothed it over and went on. However, at 3 o’clock in the morning, (which is when I tend to do my best reflecting) I cried that I had that much power over another human being. I didn’t want that much power. I turned it over to the Lord and asked him to please help me to never do that again.
Of all the mistakes I continue to make, that’s one I never made again. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still far from a sugary sweet “church” lady, but when someone does ask for something we don’t have in a demanding manner, I’m much more inclined to handle it with humor, rather than irritation and arrogance. I tell them, “You know, we’re like Big Lots. We’re a different store every week. We never know what we’re gonna get”.
This generally produces a laugh and understanding that we really are just doing the best we can. Other times I may point to my truck and say, “This ain’t no Magic Bus”. Laughing together provides a commonality. It also produces those feel good endorphins, which are invaluable when you’re dealing with people you don’t really know.
3. We tell the volunteers that if you need to see the end results of what you’re doing, this isn’t the volunteer opportunity for you. We may see some people week after week, month after month, but most people, especially the children, we see once and that’s it. You’re never going to know whether or not you made an impression or a difference. The point is, you do it anyway.
It’s not a bad idea to treat all of your clients as if it’s the last time you might see them. Leave nothing on the table. That way you don’t have regrets if you never see them again. Our attitude is that we are to be pebbles dropping in a pond. God takes care of the ripples. We just have to be willing to “jump in” and do our best.
4. Case in point—At a couple of the motels we go to, the best we can do is to hand out pre-prepared bags. We don’t like to do this. We feel it takes away the client’s ability to choose what they want, as opposed to what we think they need. To us, dignity is giving them a choice. That said, if handing out ready bags is all the motel manager will let you do, then you do it because if you don’t, the residents don’t get anything.
One day as we were driving away from the first motel, a volunteer expressed sadness that we didn’t get to see the people the bags were going to, because the manager chose to hand them out herself. At the next motel (where we were allowed to hand out the bags) when the volunteer handed a bag to one of the residents he said, “Is that all?” She immediately became incensed at his reaction. This was definitely a ￼￼￼￼ teachable moment. You don’t get it both ways. If you want to be there to see a reaction, you have to take the reactions as they come, because after all, it isn’t about us.
And, for every negative comment, there are a hundred “Thank yous!” and “You are angels. You are life savers”. Nobody bats a thousand. Serve with no expectations and you won’t get disappointed.
5. If one of your clients is rude or demanding, try not to react in kind. Remember, their lives are filled with stresses and fears you can’t begin to imagine. Five minutes before they saw you they may have gotten the message from management that they have to move out by noon, or else. Their child may be sick and they have no way to get them to a doctor or get a prescription filled. Their work hours may just have been cut. Their car (if they’re lucky enough to have one) may have just broken down or even been impounded because they can’t keep up the registration or insurance.
They may have just had a padlock put on their storage, which contains all of their worldly goods, records and memories of when life wasn’t so difficult. The list is endless.
Remember, you’re not out there to serve people who have no problems. The whole point of serving is that the ones you serve are needy, very needy, and the thing they need most is your compassion and attention. I won’t say that they need your understanding, because the whole situation is probably beyond anyone’s understanding. Do try to put yourself in their shoes. (Keeping in mind that the shoes are probably worn down and don’t fit properly). Remember that no matter what happens, you get to go home and sleep in your own bed in your own house. You get to raid a full refrigerator at midnight and you don’t have to step over anyone to do it.
6. Sometimes when a client is difficult, it’s hard not to take it personally. The truth is, there actually are some people out there who will dislike you personally. Let me clarify that. It’s not “you” personally, but everything you represent, which at the moment is everything they can’t have. You show up in your own vehicle which is loaded with goodies, relatively well dressed and clean, exuding goodwill, smiles and cheer. What’s not to like? You. Because the homeless feel trapped and you obviously are not.
It doesn’t matter that you may be on the brink of losing your job or home yourself, may have a loved one who is terminally ill or any other of a million problems. They don’t know it and it’s not your place to set anyone straight or lay your problems on them. Believe me, it won’t make them feel any better or increase the sense of camaraderie. And do try to avoid saying, “I understand”. In the best of situations it will earn you contempt. In the worst of situations it could earn you a punch.
7. There will almost never be a way to truly “understand” what someone is going through when they are homeless, even if you’ve been homeless yourself. Each one of us deals individually with the junk going on up in our heads. It’s never the same twice. However, even if you can rarely understand, you can always love someone through the situation.
This doesn’t mean showering them with words of advice, money, furniture, clothes, etc. It means being willing to treat another person decently and with dignity, according them the respect that all of us crave, even if you don’t think they deserve it. The key thought here is—even if you don’t think they deserve it.
You’re never required to take physical or overt verbal abuse and should be especially vigilant that it doesn’t happen to your volunteers. However, dealing with people who may be cranky, demanding, ill clothed and smelly is just part of what you do when you serve others. Remember, you’re not serving the rich in Beverly Hills. The ones you serve are people with real problems. (Quite frankly, I’ve observed more gracious, giving behavior in the homeless than in people that are far more privileged).
8. There are times when serving is not just about giving. It’s about gracious receiving. For example, at one of the motels where we serve, there is a gentleman named Ron.
Ron is middle aged, takes very good of his room and maintains a beautiful cactus garden right outside his door. Ron always comes out to say to “Hi” to us. He never takes very much. He always says he wants to leave it for someone “who really needs it”. He always remembers to take things for other residents who may not be there at the time we are, so that they don’t miss out.
Ron has started a tradition with us that none of us would dream of interrupting. No matter how many volunteers there are, he always brings each one of us an ice cold can of Pepsi. You can see in his eyes that he is so proud and happy to have something to offer us. He started doing this one very hot Wednesday and never fails to provide those Pepsis when he sees us.
Because Ron lives in a motel, we know he has to count his pennies so you might think our natural inclination would be to tell him to keep the Pepsis for himself. But we don’t, because we know how much it means to Ron.
To take it a step further, most of us volunteers are women and we prefer diet Pepsi. Some of us don’t drink soda at all. But not one of us fails to pop that top and take a huge swig of that Pepsi. We smack our lips and say it’s the best thing we’ve ever tasted and we thank him profusely.
Even if I hated Pepsi, it would be worth it to see the look on Ron’s face when he realizes how much pleasure he’s brought us. By allowing Ron to serve us, we’re loving him and that is what it’s all about.
9. Do not discuss where you’re going for lunch, what you bought at the mall or where you’re going this weekend within earshot of anyone you’re serving. It’s insensitive, unkind and arrogant. Do not complain about having to clean house, wash your car, make car repairs, mow the lawn, do your laundry or go grocery shopping. Homeless people wish they had these problems. Discussing such topics only points out the difference between you and them. Your financial station in life may indeed be different, but you don’t have to rub it in.
10. When distributing items of particular value, teach your volunteers the difference between winning a battle and losing a war (or in some cases, starting a war). One day we were distributing backpacks. One of our clients, a woman, wanted a couple of extras. We’d already given her enough backpacks for all of her children and told her politely that we couldn’t give her any more. About 20 minutes later one of the volunteers observed her calmly and quietly appropriating two more backpacks and walking off with them. The volunteer proceeded to go after the woman. I stopped the volunteer and probably saved her life because the woman was very large and powerful, and had several large teenage children who looked like they wouldn’t have hesitated to help their mom hang onto those backpacks.
Was it right for the woman to get two extra backpacks—no. Was it wise for us to go after them—no. So, what’s the solution? Beats me. It’s different every time, depending on circumstances. The point of the story is, pay attention to your surroundings and the situations unfolding around you. Take your cue from the external clues you’re being given. This is where that 360 degree vision each leader wishes they had comes in.
11. Cigarette smoke is hazardous to your health, everyone knows it. All the bad things said about it are absolutely true. Most nonsmokers are militant, verbal nonsmokers and they tend to be very judgmental when they see a homeless person smoking. Cigarettes are expensive. Are they the best use of one’s meager financial resources? Probably not. However, when serving the homeless try your best to refrain not only from verbally criticizing cigarette smoking, but also from judging the smoker.
Why, you ask, should you bother to help someone who obviously isn’t helping themselves? Because cigarettes are not only addictive, they also provide a calming effect. A motel room is like a lit powder keg. Imagine that you, your husband and all your children are in one room the size of your master bedroom, eating, sleeping, watching TV, cooking, doing homework, etc and this is where you’re going to be for quite a while. The pressure is tremendous and it builds.
Most homeless people didn’t just become homeless last night. It’s been going on for a while. They’re tired, discouraged and stressed. Like it or not, a few cigarettes may be all that is between family harmony and domestic violence. This is not an excuse for cigarette smoking or domestic violence. It is merely an attempt to get the reader to understand situations are usually more complicated than they appear on the surface.
Be quick to be compassionate, not disapproving. It will help you to last out there a lot longer.
If you’re constantly judging people, you’re going to be in a permanent snit and eventually it will show. If and when it does, you not only aren’t helping people, you’re actually damaging them. If you ever find yourself in this state, either take a vacation or get out permanently.
12. Be prepared to lose old friends and make new ones. The more the commitment to serve digs into your heart, the more you’re going to want to talk about it. Your old friends will smile and put up with it for a while, because they truly do like you and are interested—briefly. However, they probably don’t share your particular passion and commitment.
Try to remember, there was once a time that you didn’t know about the homeless and probably weren’t doing anything either, so don’t be too quick to judge.
Try to avoid being righteous because you now know what they don’t know. Everyone doesn’t have to share your passion. There are plenty of causes to go around and the Lord has something different for all of us. What a boring world it would be if He didn’t! At any rate, be prepared to have your old friends eyes glaze over when you’ve spoken for too long on what you’ve been doing lately.
Expect that no longer will anyone be too quick to ask, “How’s it going?”, or, “What have you been up to”? It’s ok, really. The volunteers who end up staying with you will rapidly become your friends and the ones you can talk to for hours on end about what you’re doing.
13. One of the best things you can ever do for the homeless is to look them right in the eye when speaking to them. So many people are afraid to do this. They’re afraid if they make a connection, something will be required of them. It’s true the homeless do have some very huge problems, but they do not all expect you to solve every one of them. Like any of us, the homeless are just looking for someone to validate their existence, make them real for five minutes. It costs you nothing to do this, but the value you give to the individual is huge. When you look someone in the eye you are telling them:
1) You’re another human being just like me
2) I’m not scared of you
3) I’m interested in you
4) I really do care about you
5) We really all are in the lifeboat of planet Earth together
14. Stick to your vision. Don’t lose your ability to be flexible, but don’t be afraid to stand your ground when others want to know why you’re not doing something else. People who aren’t involved will want to know, from the comfort of their armchairs, why you aren’t building homes for the homeless. Why you’re “wasting time” with what you’re doing.
There’s nothing wrong with building homes. Someone has to do it and if it’s their ministry, so be it. Someone also has to keep the homeless alive and clothed while they’re waiting for the houses to be built.
15. Giving with expectations. My best advice about this is—don’t. If you really want to serve your clients best, leave your expectations at home. You are entering into what for you is uncharted territory. You are probably a compassionate, caring person who really wants to help, if you’ve read this far. Don’t set yourself up for discouragement and disappointment by having any expectations of what your clients reactions will be when you try to help them. The average person has a picture in their mind of a warm, fuzzy experience involving eternally grateful, well-mannered people. In all truth, you probably will experience this 95% of the time.
Unfortunately, it’s the other 5% that you will remember more and will begin to shape your opinion of your clients, if you have “expectations”. People have all sorts of reasons for not being as grateful as you would expect them to be, all the way from misunderstandings, mental illness or mistrust, to the simple fact that the person you’re dealing with really is as ill-mannered as your Aunt Marmaduke.
That said, serve because you feel you’re supposed to, because you can’t imagine not doing it. If you hold that attitude, you’ll be fine, no matter the outcome.
16. You will see and experience things that will break your heart. The first time you really look into a homeless person’s eyes and see the pain it will take your breath away. Remember that the only reason you’re seeing the pain is because they trust you enough not to hide it. Handle that pain with care. Don’t betray the bearer by treating their situation lightly and don’t try to avoid it. If you do, you’ll never come within a million miles of being able to “understand”.
Don’t let it break you down to the point you become a quivering, ineffective mass. Use it to motivate and educate yourself. Respect it for the privilege it is that someone with such pain feels you are worthy of their trust.
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