What it’s like going to church when you’re homeless

Several years ago I was attending Mass at a downtown church. That day, if memory serves, the last weekday Mass was not crowded, so it stood out when a middle-aged man went up to receive Communion, then hurried out through the front doors of the church.

When I left Mass myself I found him at the foot of the church steps, asking the better-off churchgoers for change. We all had received Communion together, but he had to hurry away so as not to lose the chance to get help from anyone else leaving Mass early.

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Some churches know they have members without homes. Many do not.

The bulletin announced the parish’s ministry to people experiencing homelessness—and also warned us not to give money to people who begged around the church since some of them, the note said, had intimidated people. Although not everybody who slept or sheltered in the church during the day was a communicant and not all were Catholic, even those who were devout were not treated like other parishioners.

Some churches know they have members without homes. Many do not. One of the striking facts about the experience of homelessness is how widely it can vary, from living on the streets to “couch-surfing,” staying with whichever friend or relative is willing to take you in for a little while. People can spend decades cycling in and out of shelters and programs, or they can spend several months living out of their car. The Department of Housing and Urban Development collects statistics on how many Americans are homeless on a given night (over 500,000 in 2016), but this vastly underestimates how many Americans have experienced some period of homelessness. Even shorter-term and relatively safer periods of homelessness often leave serious claw marks on people’s souls, on their idea of who they are and how others see them.

In attempting to give a few homeless and formerly homeless Christians a chance to share their experiences of church, I spoke to eight people, whom I found through social media, personal connections and walking around Washington, D.C., where I live. This tiny group does not include anyone who was homeless while caring for children (in 2016 HUD found that 35 percent of homeless people were in families with children) or anyone who became homeless before age 18. I tried to interview other people who were unwilling to talk or unable to speak coherently at that time. By necessity this is an article about the church experiences of relatively trusting, relatively stable people. Nonetheless, their voices often echoed the surprisingly slender research literature on homeless people’s experiences of church—and they expressed hard-won truths about Christian life.

Exposed, yet Invisible

Some of the people I spoke to were homeless only briefly, some for decades; they come from wildly different backgrounds, they have different interests, different personalities, and yet their experiences of homelessness were intense enough to mark most of them in starkly similar ways. A sense of both exposure and invisibility came up repeatedly in our conversations.

John William Brandkamp, 52, is an ebullient seminary employee who bounced around many different churches before settling in with what he calls “a moderately progressive African-American church in the urban heart of Boston.” He is outgoing and funny. During his experience of homelessness, Mr. Brandkamp volunteered with a homeless ministry. He is full of stories of the people he has loved and lost. And he summarized one of the hardest aspects of his experience of homelessness in words echoed by many of my interviewees: “I desperately want to be seen, and I desperately do not want to be seen.”

Charles Purcell, 54, a forthright man with a ready smile who spoke with me while he was asking for money near a Metro station in Washington, noted, “People walk by me every day, and they see me and don’t see me.” As we talked, a man walked by and said: “You look healthy. Why can’t you work?”

Being treated as if you do not exist—or, when your presence is acknowledged, as if you are a problem—in a place that has promised to be a haven can feel like a crushing betrayal. Reggie, 59, (who did not want to give his last name) has close-cropped hair and a short beard threaded with silver. He has been homeless in Washington, for about seven years. We spoke near the Catholic church where he attends Mass, though he is not Catholic.

He recalled: “One time I was laying out here, and I was throwing up green bile. Out of all those people, droves of people [leaving church], only one lady came over and asked if I was all right and called the ambulance. She said, ‘Jesus! You’re in bad shape!’”

For the most part, the churchgoers are “clean, respectful people,” he said. “I can’t say anything bad about the church.”

But that moment stuck with him.

Closed Doors

Although many people I spoke to found respite at church, others described how even finding a church that would let them in was a struggle while they were homeless.

Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press via AP
Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press via AP

Anna Harrover, 37, was homeless with her late husband for about 15 years, and she told me that she was turned away from churches repeatedly during that time. “I tried going to church, calling a church to find out about services,” she said. “And yeah, I did try getting a little help because I did want to get on my feet. And I got pushed away. A lot of different times.” Multiple churches (both Catholic and non-Catholic) told Ms. Harrover that they wouldn’t be able to help her unless she belonged to the church. But Ms. Harrover didn’t feel comfortable attending services because of the way she looked, and because in her experience other churchgoers “look[ed] down on the homeless.”

Eventually, Ms. Harrover did find one church that welcomed her and her husband.

“I was wary,” she told me. “Are they gonna see us and call the cops on us? [But] they took all that doubt away. They would come out and just talk to us. Not like, ‘You can’t be here; you got to get off the property.’ They wanted to know why we were homeless, what happened in our life, stuff like that. They would bring us food out, invite us to church services.”

The church accepted her as she was, Ms. Harrover said, even when her clothes were “ragged and stained.” It was there that she received her first Communion and was confirmed in the Catholic faith.

She said the church “made me feel like I think God wants us all to feel: a part of a home.... We ended up getting married in the Catholic Church, too. That was the first time we had a church that welcomed us being homeless.”

She has seriously struggled with faith since her husband’s death. “When I lost my husband, I lost who I was,” Ms. Harrover said. “I kept thinking, ‘Why be with him so long, and then we finally get legally married, why did you take him from me?’ So I lost who I was. I went crazy.... I do want to practice my Catholic religion again, but I want to find the right place.”

Being known by people at church can even feel like a burden when things get really rough.

But even a church that feels like home is no certain protection against shame or anxiety. Being known by people at church can even feel like a burden when things get really rough. When I spoke with Tony Hansel, a 35-year-old living in St. Paul, Minn., he was going through an especially hard time. The month before, he had found out that his stepfather, “the one who has raised me my whole life,” was diagnosed with cancer; and Mr. Hansel, who has lost a hand, stopped receiving disability benefits. Mr. Hansel had stopped going to church in the wake of these crises.

When I talked to Mr. Hansel on the phone, I could hear other people calling out to him; he stopped to chat with acquaintances as we talked. He is clearly part of a community of people who know and care about him. He noted: “Some homeless people in the church looked up to me. They were wondering where I was.” Their concern kept him connected, but, he said, “I need some alone time.”

We often talk about the church as a family. But our families can fail to accept us, to recognize us, to let us in, as Ms. Harrover experienced over and over while she was homeless. When they do welcome us, families can put expectations on us; even their love and care can feel like high-pressure scrutiny.

Church as Home

Perhaps one solace of Mass is its direct intimacy with Jesus. His silent presence offers reassurance that he is with us, without the awkward questions and intrusions which we may face from other churchgoers.

For many of the people I spoke with, church was a place where they were seen as real people and not just “homeless.” Greg C., 27, is that rare person who can speak both quickly and thoughtfully. We met at a literary festival we both happened to attend and our conversation turned to the three-and-a-half months he spent homeless. Greg’s stint of homelessness came as a result of a combination of untreated depression and anxiety, family strife and a romantic breakup. He recalled: “During confession, I often mentioned the fact that I was homeless because I wanted not just to be affirmed...but to really receive the compassion of a priest. Even if I was there to be forgiven, to have someone who was willing to listen was just.... That was incredible—that merciful gaze.”

The desperate need for that Christlike gaze, which sees us and does not shame us, is one obvious aspect of many people’s experience of homelessness that I wish we heard about in church. Another aspect is the way the church itself can become a home—which makes it especially painful when people feel that they cannot be at home there.

J. B. Toner, 39, was homeless off and on for about 15 years while traveling cross-country. He slept in his car, couch-surfed at friends’ places and slept in woods, under bridges or in abandoned houses. He has a thoughtful, quiet way of speaking, frequently punctuated with laughter. “I got to hang out with a lot of other homeless people. It was edifying,” he recalled with his quick laugh.

The church itself can become a home—which makes it especially painful when people feel that they cannot be at home there.

“Usually when I was wandering, I would at least try to get to Mass,” Mr. Toner said. “I was in Seattle at Mass once and I was all scruffy, and at the kiss of peace, the lady next to me turned and took my hand and said, ‘Are you O.K., do you need help or anything?’ Obviously she had been meaning to ask me that. It was nice!”

He did not need help that day, but church remained a place where he could be seen and still be safe.

“If I came to a new town, the library and the church were the first two places that I would find,” he told me. “You could always hang out in a library during the day and you could always get help at a church if you needed it. It just felt like home.”

In spite of the differences among Catholic churches, he said, “it was kind of comforting to know that it was the same Mass wherever I went.” At church, Mr. Toner said, he could “put down whatever [he] was carrying”—it was a place of physical, spiritual and psychological rest for him.

“It was kind of comforting to know that it was the same Mass wherever I went,” said Mr. Toner.

Toner is now married. He told me that today, home is where his wife is. But Toner continues to attend Mass and to find comfort there, albeit in a different ways; being a member of a parish and a choir are new experiences for him.

“It’s nice to belong to something,” he told me.

Greg had a briefer experience of homelessness than Mr. Toner, but he also expressed gratitude for the sense of home that church provided him while he was homeless.

“At Mass...I was much more grateful to have somewhere to go and to be able to sit next to people [than I was before I was homeless].” He blinked, as if holding back tears, and continued: “Before it was like, ‘I have to go to Mass and be around people, I have to hold hands.’ It was like a forced thing.... As a homeless person it was like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe there’s a place I can go to be around people and not be judged. When it’s time to kneel, to get on my knees, I feel so much more dependent upon God.... When I was at church, I was grateful to be there, just to be let in.”

Beyond the relief Greg felt to be part of a community and in God’s presence, when he was living in his car churches also provided a place to stay. “The places where I would stay most, where I would park my car, were churches. Places that had 24-hour adoration, so it wouldn’t be suspicious that I had my car there,” he said. “Being able to go to adoration every night, not that I went every night—but being able to go—was such a comfort…. Going to adoration felt like coming home, even though it’s not where I slept.”

The circumstances that had led to Greg living in his car left him with deep bitterness, which dissolved in the presence of God, but he still felt he had to confess to this bitterness almost every time he went to confession. “Gosh, all day long I’m just ruminating about how bitter and poor I am, how unfair all this is, but then I come to adoration and I’m like, ‘Oh God, I’m such a sinner and so unworthy, I can’t believe you let me sit here before you!’”

Suffering

As we sip coffee on a park bench under a spreading canopy of leaves on a breezy Midwestern summer day, Greg recalled his first night sleeping in his storage space: “I feel less than humble when I talk about how hard it was, but that is definitely a big part of the story. It was in January of 2014 in San Antonio. The day that I moved out was the beginning of the great polar vortex. I went to Walmart that night and bought a sleeping bag—still freezing. I bought two of those camping warmer things, where you crack them. Still freezing cold. Still very much exposed, having just a garage door to keep me [warm].”

In the storage space, he had to hit the 24-hour Whataburger across the street if he wanted to use the bathroom. He said: “You’re not supposed to stay in [storage spaces]. I was super afraid of getting caught and kicked out. So a lot of times I slept in my car, which was also pretty cold. Two sleeping bags and a blanket, I would cover myself as much as possible while still trying to be able to breathe. Still being very much afraid, just deathly afraid of people who were even walking toward my car at 7 in the morning, very tired because it was never a great sleep, in the cold, in my residence where I can see my own breath, and just watching around, looking at the people hoping they wouldn’t notice me. Parking under trees so the streetlights wouldn’t shine so much into the car.”

homeless jesus
Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press via AP

Mr. Brandkamp described the similar vulnerability and fear he experienced on the day in 1986 when, at age 21, he lost his first job, developed bronchitis and was evicted along with his mother: “We spent three days and three nights on the streets [of New York] wandering from donut shops to doorways to park benches. Our stuff was stolen while we were on a park bench trying to get some sleep. In my grandparents’ neighborhood, of all places—a very safe neighborhood—but no place is safe when you’re homeless.”

And yet, he said, “What I thought was the worst day of my life ended up being the hand of God.” Life had been brutally hard for a long time: “We knew we were chronically poor. I ate three out of four weeks of the month, was chronically malnourished through my teen years. My mom dealt with a lot of mental health issues from my father’s abuse.” The shock of ending up on the streets made them cast around for help, and they found a Dutch Reformed church on Staten Island with an overflowing ministry to homeless people. Their shelter was so full that Mr. Brandkamp and his mother slept for several nights on chairs. But the people there saw him and his mother and didn’t judge them. “They saved our lives,” Mr. Brandkamp says. He became a Christian while homeless.

A Friend in Need

Many churches create ministries and services specifically for people who are experiencing homelessness. These ministries can serve those who otherwise might not come to church: services that take place in a homeless shelter, for example, or that pick up worshipers and take them to a church, can reach people who don’t have reliable transportation. These services also offer lifelines to people like John, who with his mother was in dire need of a place to stay.

Nonetheless, many people keep going to their previous church once they become homeless. People may prefer a specific church, community or Mass; they may not know where to find Masses that are especially welcoming to homeless people; they may be hiding their painful financial circumstances; or they may just wind up at a church by chance.

Because people without stable housing are as varied as any other subgroup of Christians, they are as likely to turn up in the choir or R.C.I.A. or the gay and lesbian ministry as in the homeless ministry. If church leaders try to evade the work of welcoming homeless people by delegating it to specific services and ministries alone, they will be unable to nurture these people’s faith and receive the gifts they bring.

I have not heard any homilies in which people who were homeless appeared as anything other than the object of others’ aid, or that noted that Jesus himself, who gives us every good thing, experienced homelessness. Remember not only the makeshift shelter of the manger, but Jesus’ family’s flight into Egypt as refugees fleeing Herod, and his reliance on others’ aid as a wandering preacher. Jesus and the disciples looked to others for their shelter, and had to hope that somewhere in the cities where they preached, a door would open for them.

Many of my interviewees described the acts of charity they performed for others. Even those who had nothing found ways to aid and protect their neighbor, ways to offer a Christlike gaze.

One of the most striking examples was a story I heard from Reggie. Reggie was just chatting after our interview, telling me stories from his life. In former years he often spent weekend nights on a street corner near both his church and a local nightclub. He would see men taking women into the alley behind the club, with the women so drunk they were nearly incapacitated. Fearing for the women’s safety, Reggie would get up and go to the alley himself, making sure to be seen—and would watch until the couple went elsewhere or the man, under the stern eye of his witness, placed the woman in a cab.

Mr. Purcell came up with a more formal way to help. He started HomelessUnited.org, which gives away crowdfunded T-shirts saying, “Homeless Lives Matter.” He has worked in the homeless ministry at Emory United Methodist Church. Even when he is soliciting money on the street, he makes encouraging signs: “The Spirit said, ‘Start doing signs of encouragement. Give back as much as you can.’” He’s had passersby comment that his signs were the reminder they needed to hope and persevere.

Other people gave in more material ways. Mr. Hansel used to buy cigarettes and water and give them away or sell them at half-price at shelters. He would buy food, cook it at the shelter and give it away. As Mr. Toner notes, “It makes a difference to be given something small if you don’t have anything. I’ve always tried hard when I had money to give it to anyone who asked me for it.”

Homelessness can also make people re-evaluate their own previous understandings of charity and generosity. Greg said: “It made me aware of people who were much more homeless. Before, I always had that weird debate in my head, when I was thinking of giving to the poor, for example. I would only give to people who looked like they weren’t scamming. And when I was homeless, even though I was still better off—I called it ‘homeless lite’—I was thrown into the same lot with people that I had never considered to be really my community. I realized that was not the case anymore…. It was during that time that I decided that I would always give no matter what. That commandment in the Gospels to give to whoever asks of you became clear to me.”

God in Chaos

For some, becoming homeless was an experience (sometimes one of many) that forced them to confront themselves. Mr. Purcell finds solace and guidance in the Book of Jonah. He went through a period of greater stability, including working at the homeless ministry. But then “my carnal nature got in the way and I stopped going” to church. “I wasn’t putting him first, and things started to unravel. I ended up back on the streets.” Mr. Purcell also looks to David as “a big hero of mine. He loved God, he knew he was flawed. He never blamed God for anything that happened to him; he was always [repentant].”

Not everybody seeking a deeper relationship with God will be as upbeat and community-minded as Mr. Purcell. Not all of them will be sane or sober. Hansel, in Minnesota, noted, “There are some people here who go to church and they believe in God, but they want that next bottle and they want that next shot of drugs.” And that’s true of a lot of people who have stable housing, too, which serves as a reminder: A church that can welcome homeless people only at their best will be a church where everybody fears to show their weaknesses.

A church that can welcome homeless people only at their best will be a church where everybody fears to show their weaknesses.

My final interviewee, Eleanor (who chose not to give her real name), learned to offer that Christlike gaze of love and acceptance precisely because of her own experience of needing it. In bitterness and suffering, in injustices done by others and in our own self-harm, God still offers peace. And people who have experienced that peace in the midst of what seems like total chaos can offer it to others with a conviction and fearlessness few witnesses can match.

Eleanor, who lives in a large East Coast city, became homeless after divorce and subsequent financial and emotional upheaval. She is now 38.

In the wake of the divorce, she said, “I kind of lost my mind. My [siblings] and my big, giant, loving evangelical church of 10 years—plus the evangelical church of my childhood—all rejected me, citing the fact that I was mentally ill. Well, honestly, when you lose everything, your mind goes too for awhile.”

Nowadays she can talk about her struggles with self-deprecation and amusement. “I no longer scream like a possessed woman every time I talk to my dad (although we did recently have an awesome Christmastime public fight at an IHOP).”

Despite her humor, Eleanor’s experience of hopelessness and despair while homeless affected her deeply. “I mourned and detested Christians at this time in my life. I bore a baffled hatred for friends who were having marital problems perhaps deeper and more difficult than what had led my husband to choose another life—but who yet remained coupled, homed, insured, stable, while they literally gaped at me and stepped aside. I was a sideshow. It was horrific! I didn’t do a good job of maintaining any personal dignity.”

She said, “While I was homeless, I went to church with whoever was letting me live with them. It was kind of what they expected, and I didn’t deviate.” She ended up Catholic: “Having been so totally and utterly failed, misunderstood and maligned by 99 percent of the people I loved—evangelical Protestants and Catholics alike—I really just wanted Jesus. The Eucharist was suddenly that much more necessary and beautiful. I’d previously dropped out of two rounds of R.C.I.A. I slouched toward R.C.I.A. No. 3 as enthusiastically as a paranoid, heartbroken, half-mad, wholly rejected person can.”

Now, she said, “I’m less afraid of other people’s despair and chaos because I know God can use it and is working within it.”

That might not be a bad start to a homily.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Carol Cox
3 months ago

Brilliant, real, touching portraits of those considered, "the least among us"! I teach CCD to children and one Sunday morning a little fellow was ranting about the homeless man on the corner of our church. I stopped him in his tracks when I informed him, "That gentleman has a name. He's Joey and he has lived in this neighborhood his whole life. He's fallen on hard times and he sleeps in a shelter at night. I often ask Joey if he would like something to eat or drink. Usually, he refuses to accept help. But, sometimes, he'll ask me for something specific, like a bacon and egg sandwich. I always get him what he asks. Homeless people are just like us. We have to remember that we are not here to judge anyone. Judging is God's job, not ours." Thank you for your insightful, meaningful article! How important that America printed this on the eve of our Church recognizing the needs of the poor this Sunday!

Henry Smith
3 months ago

When we all die, I wonder if we embrace the Homeless who got to Heaven
ahead of us and if we do, what will we say to them.

Sorry you were not allowed to sleep in God's house when you were on earth. Sorry I did not have time to help you...on Earth. Sorry I had fancy dinners where I did not share or invite you to join me. Sorry I ignored you when you begged me for money...

I can only wonder why there are only two comments for this fine article
that speaks more about whether we love as Jesus commanded us to
love or not.

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