This summer, I've had the opportunity to live and work at City Union Mission, a homeless shelter in downtown Kansas City. Even though I've been around the Mission to some extent for my whole life, and my parents purposefully never shielded me from poverty, I still had no idea the vastness and implications of urban poverty and homelessness. And surely, I still don't. Living at the Mission this summer, I ate my meals and chatted with the families who lived in the shelter every day. However, as funny as it sounds, it didn't fully hit me that these people were homeless until a few weeks into my internship when I helped the shelter manager do daily room checks. When we started, I didn't think about who lived in each room until I walked into a room of a family I'd gotten to know pretty well. The six year-old's drawings were taped on the wall, and the teenage girl has made tissue paper flowers to hang on her bunk. I saw a stack of DVDs on the dresser, and remembered them saying they had a movie night Saturday. All their possessions, between the three of them, were neatly tucked away into the two dressers.
At that moment, I realized they really lived here, that this tiny room with dim lighting was home, for the time being. They had no place else to go. Perhaps this sounds like a obvious realization for someone interning at a homeless shelter. But it made me so aware of what a different childhood these girls were having, that their picture didn't go up on a refrigerator but the wall of a shelter, that they didn't have a big backyard to run through, or a kitchen to "help" their mom make dinner. At least for now, they not only don't have a house, but they don't have a home. And not a bit of it is their fault.
Jesus said that the poor would always be with us. And they certainly are right now. The average age of a homeless person in Kansas City is seven. Seven years old. That should be unsettling. We shouldn't be okay with that. To be a child and not have a stable home or family is a damaging thing, both academically, emotionally, and socially. One of the girls who attends the City Camp, the Mission's summer-long day camp, lives at New House, a domestic violence shelter near the Mission. She told me that she and her friends at New House call it "the mansion" because they don't like to talk about living in a shelter at school. "It's depressing, you know?" she said. I asked why specifically, and she said because they have no other options, and no way to get away from the shelter for a while.
But through it all I have seen change for the better. In spite of a setback in which the mother had to spend six weeks in jail, the family with two girls is moving into the Mission's long-term transitional living program. The girl from New House? Over the summer, I've seen her transform from a girl with an explosive temper and bad attitude to someone who is learning to control her anger and make better choices.
However, more than anything, I have seen the power of the Gospel. Not that it magically changes the consequences of mistakes already made, or makes life easy and carefree. But it gives purpose to the junk in our lives, the bad things we've done and the bad things that have happened to us. I have peace knowing that God works everything out for the good of those who love him, and uses our stories to make him known. God is about hope that doesn't disappoint, and overwhelming love, and radical redemption, and I have seen each of those things played out this summer in the shelter. He is faithful when we screw up, even though we do so over and over again. And that gives me hope, for myself and for the people in shelters and on the streets, for the hungry, for the abused, for the mentally ill, for the unemployed, and for the hopeless, because, without God, that's what we all are.