First of Five posts on this subject from Jim McMaster
When I first began specific outreach to homeless people in 1994 I had no concept of the way the Lord would develop this work and lead us into the lives of literally thousands of needy souls. Through those already involved in similar work in various parts of the UK the Lord directed us to spend most of our time using material help as a bridge to bring the gospel to the men and women who live in addiction and homelessness lifestyles . Through this work the Lord opened up the opportunity to serve Him in the local prisons and now the opportunities in the custodial institutions of the area far surpass my abilities.
Over these years, I have been greatly encouraged by many other brothers and sisters who have increasingly been exercised in this area of outreach all over the UK many of whom have developed the work to a much greater extent and provide a much more effective service to these folks. We have always deliberately chosen to remain on the streets rather than move into rehabilitation or rehousing and often I have been called a "Gutter Evangelist." - a description I am not unhappy to bear.
Over the years, and more often recently, lots of people have called and emailed asking advice about how to handle folks with addiction, prison or homelessness problems. I have never felt qualified to be considered an expert in these areas and would often say that more can be learned from my mistakes than by my successes. However, in light of these repeated requests and with encouragement from several believers I have decided that it may be helpful if I outlined the principles that I have come to adopt as the foundation of all our activities.
The following are given in the humble understanding that they are neither authoritative or comprehensive and others are undoubtedly more qualified than I am to give advice in these areas. Also, the comments are made more specifically as a guide to those who have deliberately decided to reach out into this very specialised section of our society. The same principles however will also apply to believers who with increasing frequency are in contact with those who have specific problems of substance abuse or homelessness in their normal outreach activities.
1) Be Careful and Cautious
This may seem a strange or even an unspiritual consideration to put first but it is, in my opinion, the most important. This is quite in keeping with scripture on several occasions we see the Lord's people use reasonable means to prevent avoidable problems. Eg the believers in Jerusalem were careful to send Paul away when they became aware of the plot to take his life (see Acts chapter 9)!
If you are deliberately going to make efforts to reach out to a population with addiction problems and homelessness you are inevitably stepping into a dangerous environment both spiritually and physically. I find most folks in this situation have problems which are uncommon in our interactions with the normal population. Many have criminal records and increasingly many have mental health problems. Many have desperate addiction problems which require immediate funds to satisfy them and may not be averse to deceit or even violence to obtain the resources they require. and find that a web of lies.
So it is important to be CAREFUL that you are sure that this is the type of outreach that the Lord wants you to be involved with. To venture into this section of society and this type of work without the certain knowledge that the Lord has sent you specifically is nothing short of extreme foolishness as you are placing yourself in an environment of extreme danger. It is a place when you may face several health risks (e.g. Hepatitis), have to deal with possibility of personal violence against yourself, deal with people who are extremely vulnerable (a good working knowledge of safeguarding is essential) and there are also individuals who would not stop at making unfounded accusations (so NEVER venture out alone). It is important never to disclose your home address or take anyone into your own home. It is always better to work out from a neutral location (e.g. Gospel Hall) and meet contacts in public places. If you need to provide emergency accommodation for someone, if local homeless charities/local authorities cannot help (always the first line of enquiry), it is always wiser to use local hotel facilities rather than take an unknown person to your own home.
Never approach anyone without sensible CAUTION as new contacts are an unknown situation and even well known contacts can be unpredictable in their behaviour, especially if under the influence of alcohol or drugs. I cannot overemphasise the need to be prepared for every eventuality.
Care and Caution are not unspiritual qualities and are the essential and underpinning principles of this type of outreach.