Urban ministry offers tips on talking to the homeless

Christ in the City, a Denver-based urban ministry, has a tip sheet for engaging homeless persons in the street, including learning the person’s name and using it, and providing soft food rather than granola bars or apples because often the homeless have teeth problems. DENVER, Colorado – It’s a common sight at a city intersection. A man or a woman holds a cardboard sign: “Homeless, Hungry. Please Give. Anything Helps.” Most motorists stopped at the light and, eager to move on, ignore the person. But what should you do before the light changes?

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The Denver-based urban ministry Christ in the City offers some advice.

  • “Ask the person’s name,” said the group’s tip sheet. “One of our friends on the street told us he went four months without hearing his own name. Ask the person’s name and remember it.”
  • Those with a regular commute should remember that name and say hello the next time.
  • “You’ll be amazed how his or her face will light up that you remembered.”
  • “To love is to know and be known,” Christ in the City said. “And so, the chronically homeless become unknown, they become separated, not just from society but from the experience of love itself.”

The chronically homeless are the most resistant to social services and other help. They’re most likely to have substance abuse or mental health problems. Erin McCrory, the ministry’s managing director, reflected on their situation. “They’ve told us that once your reality becomes eating out of garbage cans and you don’t hear your name spoken for months at a time, you accept this is your reality,” McCrory told the Denver Catholic Register. “Their spirits are broken, and they lack in hope and faith in people.”

There are other ways of making personal contact.

“Reach out and offer a handshake,” the group’s tip sheet advised. “This simple gesture breaks a barrier and expresses that you recognize their dignity. One moment of awkwardness for you can be the highlight of the day for them.” Each year, a new team of Christ in the City missionaries gathers in Denver for efforts such as homeless outreach. About 25 young missionaries volunteer for two years, receiving spiritual and academic formation in their time of service. The group says one missionary alone reaches 500 homeless and engages 80-100 volunteers to engage in more than 62,000 hours of service for the homeless.

The group advises people to give more practical items instead of money, like socks, water, Gatorade, or gloves. Those who give food should keep in mind that people on the street often have teeth problems and can’t eat hard granola bars or apples. Soft foods like bananas or soft-baked granola bars are more edible. “Giving money is a personal decision that requires discernment. Items showing personal care are more likely to keep a focus on friendship.  Gift cards can be a better alternative to cash,” Christ in the City said. “Your love and compassion are more effective than five bucks,” the group added.

The group’s final piece of advice?

“Offer to pray for them and mean it,” Christ in the City said. “We try to be another Christ to our friends on the street, but we accept that we can only do so much. The rest we leave up to God in prayer. He loves our friends more than we ever could.” The organization has had requests to expand into five other dioceses. It will host its annual celebration at Holy Name Church in Sheridan, a Denver suburb, on Oct. 6. Missionaries will emcee the event and sit at tables with attendees.

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