My wife volunteers with a ministry to those almost homeless along Colfax, the main east-west road through Denver before the interstate went in. At both the east and west ends of Colfax are a string of old motels built in the 40s and 50s. Most are now filled with people who have fallen through the cracks of life. They aren’t yet living on the street, just struggling in little hovels which used to be motel rooms, trying to survive and keep up with the rent. Many get a pay check or social security, but are broke and hungry by the end of the month.
Most have jobs but at minimum wage, or take day labor in an economy where their labor is hardly needed. Admittedly, most have made mistakes somewhere along the line: dropping out of high school, becoming a teen-aged mother, using drugs or alcohol, getting sent to jail, losing a job, etc. Others are just living the marginal lifestyle in which they were raised, never able to rise above just barely making it.
Mean Street Ministry was started by businessman James Fry in 2000 and has volunteers from several evangelical churches. It has a food bank, provides information on jobs, public services, places to get legal aid or counseling, churches which offer free meals on various evenings during the week, even support groups like AA to help them improve their lives.
While my wife visits folks on Colfax nearly every day, I go with her about once a week. One evening, while delivering food from the food bank, a family pulled into the small motel in a van. The dad and mom were crying and their 12-year old daughter seemed in shock. Their home had been repossessed earlier that day. All they could take was jammed into their van. The dad had a job stocking shelves graveyard shift at a grocery store, and barely had enough money for a few nights rent. We were worried for them, as that motel was no place for a 12-year old girl. We left food and referred them to the ministry, who found a more suitable place to live a few days later.
Last week I met a new resident, who was just released from jail. His parole officer had found him a room in the motel and a job where he had to report each day. He had accepted Jesus in prison, and didn’t want to get back into his old crowd. When I found that he had been raised Lutheran, I connected him to a Lutheran church that supports the ministry. They offer a free meal each Thursday evening, and a church bus even comes by to give rides.
Last week we revisited a woman who needed more food from the food bank. We found that four other “friends” had moved into her one person room, and they were hungry too. She took in homeless people, even though she had almost nothing.
Last month we left a bag of food on a doorknob of an elderly man who had requested it, but hadn’t answered the door. It was still hanging there a couple days later. He had passed away and, had it not been for the bag on the door, nobody would have known.
Often we encounter battered and abused women who need out of a bad situation, and we help them get relocated into a group home for women. We also encounter young couples barely out of their teens, already with several babies. Usually the dad has a minimum wage job, while mom cares for the babies in a tiny rundown hotel room. The ministry provides diapers, day old baked goods, canned goods, and friendship. Surely the people we meet have made poor decisions early in life, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be helped out of the pit they have fallen into. Our goal is to help them find good jobs, good churches, and healthy relationships.
I haven’t seen big government liberals on the street ministering to those in need, and I haven’t seen any occupy-wall-street radicals either. These groups use the poor to promote their own agendas, but don’t actually help the poor they claim to care about. It is easy to talk about helping the poor, or say that the government should do something, but few actually do something about it themselves. Mostly I encounter other evangelicals helping on the street. They have told me, that they don’t put faith in politicians to solve the problem of poverty. What is needed, they insist, are people who care, investing their own time in the lives of others.
Last month I met the leader of an atheist organization in Denver. I asked him why the atheists weren’t out there helping the poor. His response was that the only reason we are out there was to make converts. In reality, we are convinced that the only way to make a real difference is for souls to be transformed. Government gives food stamps and a welfare check, but that only promotes dependency. We give canned goods and information on where to find help, but this is to build relationships which can lead to improved lives. The food bank can only feed folks for a day, but if they are transformed, they can feed themselves for a lifetime.
Liberals turn this duty over to the government, but neither liberals nor bureaucrats care enough to do what is really needed. Conservatives often judge the poor for their failures and preach free market policies, which have worked for many, but not for those who can’t see their way out. What they need is real hope and real change, and that comes from people who will get out on to the street and invest their lives in others.