I’ve worked in an incredible organization geared toward the homeless for nearly two years in downtown Atlanta, and it has been some of the craziest, most fulfilling work I’ve ever done. I’ve learned so many infinitely valuable lessons from the thousands I’ve come in contact with, some that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I could never list them all (like just how many uses there are for Kroger bags and that the world never has enough shower shoes), but here are five that have stood out to me overall:
1. Words matter.
One morning as I was making my rounds at work, in walked a woman through the shelter doors. This is no new occurrence, we have walk-ins every day and it sometimes can desensitize you to the real struggles each one is facing. But this day was different. She was extremely thin, shaking, and clearly uncomfortable. I asked her to have a seat in my office as I let her tell me what she was in need of. She didn’t seem to want to talk much, which is understandable. After she had spoken a few words, I smiled, nodded, and said, “We are going to take care of you.” Suddenly, she broke down into tears, and I started to wonder what I may have said or done to make her cry. I finally asked her what was wrong, and all she said was, “You said ‘we.’ This is the first time I haven’t felt alone in weeks.” This moment has stayed with me ever since it occurred only months after I started this job. We can be so careless with our words, but what we say and how we say it truly matters. The things you utter can make or break a person’s day, even if it’s something as simple as saying, “we.” Since that day, I’ve tried to be more intentional in my words and make a habit of speaking kindness into people’s lives, even by just saying small things.
2. Homelessness is complicated.
Before I started this job, I had a pretty cliche idea of what homelessness was, and I think we all do at first. The media portrays the homeless in such a way that it’s basically the heartbreakingly direct opposite of reality by taking the exceptions and painting the entire population in a negative light. The truth is that absolutely anyone can end up in this situation, and it’s a humbling realization to know that with the perfect storm, you too could end up in their shoes. All homeless people are not uneducated, helpless, rude, addicted, or should be avoided. I have met homeless women with Master’s degrees, mothers with minds as sharp as swords, and ladies who had it all in terms of the world’s view of success but had just got sucked into a bad relationship. I’ve met brilliant children with vision to rule the world and some of the wisest elderly women with whom I could sit and talk for hours. Homelessness is such a complex issue, and a cookie-cutter approach just does not work. Not everyone just needs a buck or two in passing when you see them on the street (I’d argue that no one does). You never know what a person is going through until you take the time to let your guard down, to sit next to them, and listen to their story. Many times, they’ll teach you lessons you could have never learned anywhere else.
3. Perspective is everything.
“Is it nice living in a house?” – one of the single most heartbreaking things I’ve ever been asked, and it came from a little 8-year-old boy as he tied his shoes next to his bed in the family room of the shelter. Even when you daily work with people with no home, no car, and little or no money, it’s still easy to forget how much you have. One of my favorite and most humbling quotes is “Someone is praying for the things you take for granted.” The society in which we live teaches us to always crave the next best thing, and we’ve practically dropped contentment from our vocabulary. We camp outside for days in line to get the new iPhone, drop hundreds of dollars on the latest trends (not saying any of that is bad or that you should feel guilty, especially if you can afford it), and we hardly stop to think about another person’s perspective. It’s up to all of us to put ourselves in other’s shoes and keep a mindset of awareness, humility, and contentment.
4. Not everyone “just needs to get a job.” And I’m saying this both to those judgmental outsiders and to some of the women I’ve served who believe this about themselves. More often than not, there is much more that needs to be addressed than just employment status. That’s just a band-aid over a gunshot wound. There is trauma that needs to be confronted, mental health that needs to be treated, or even a simple connection that needs to be established. Nearly half of the women we serve have admitted to having absolutely no relationships with anyone, including with friends, acquaintances, and even their own children – how can we continue to believe that all a person needs is a job to be able to turn their life around if they lack the very thing we were created to have (relationship)? There is so much more to the story than whether or not they are employed. Granted, there are a select few who just happened to be jobless and evicted and simply do only need a job to get back on their feet, but most are in need much more than just that. The point I’ve seen time and time again is that we must dig deeper, stop assuming, and start truly listening to people and work with them, not decide for them.
5. God is present even in the little things.
I’ve never seen God preached like I’ve heard from the women I’ve worked with. Humbler, more honest prayers have never been uttered like the prayers that have echoed throughout the halls of the shelter. Shouts and praises have never come from a deeper place than in the shelter chapel. And I’ve never seen God show up more than He has in my life and the lives of those He’s given our team to serve since I started this job. He is there when a woman trudges through the doors after spending their last $2.50 on the bus ride to get here, clinging to hope of a place to finally sleep indoors, He’s there when she’s handed her keys to her apartment with tears of joy in her eyes, and He’s there in all the moments in between – the uncertainty, the hopelessness, the turnaround, and the transformation. Christ truly cares about the little things, and He gives us one another to recognize and celebrate them.
Since I began my work in this field, I’ve learned pretty quickly that loving people in this capacity is messy. It can exhaust you, test every bit of patience you have, and rip your heart out. But it’s all worth it when you refuse to give up on someone (because that’s what Jesus did for you) and you get to see a woman, who at first was fearful and skiddish, begin to let down her walls and truly blossom into all that she was created to be. I get to witness a life transform all because somebody dared to believe that they were not too far gone, and for that I am truly thankful.
BONUS: I’ve also learned that the part of your job description that says “…and all other duties as assigned” can be used in a variety of ways. From cleaning out toilets clogged with hotdogs (yes, hotdogs) to picking up trash outside under the accurately named “pee bush,” it’s all about your willingness to serve and your ability to laugh it off with your coworkers. There is never a dull moment in this job.
What are some valuable lessons you’ve learned from working at your job? Let me know in the comments!