Last fall, just before Thanksgiving, a couple acquaintances of mine were on the verge of homelessness. It was crazy timing. They didn’t know each other. One of them I hadn’t seen in 30 years. Our only connection was Facebook. She had been somewhat transient—living with friends or family, house-sitting/pet-sitting, staying in a shelter—for years. Everything she owned fit in the backseat of her car. The other was a more recent friend who had gone through a series of job losses. She had made really good money at one time and had a storage unit full of belongings. They had lived very different lives, but they also shared some commonalities: they are both divorced; they both have one child; they are both in their sixties; and they both were being asked to leave their current living situations with nowhere else to go. They were both in a jam, and I offered them a place to stay.
It wasn’t exactly on a whim. I talked it over with my husband. We live in the same home where we raised our four adult children. Only one of them still lives with us, so we have space. It seemed reasonable, but let’s just say, I didn’t count the costs.
Lesson #1: Count the Costs
You know the parable in Matthew 21 where a father asks his two sons to go work in the vineyard. One son says he won’t go, but then he does. The other son says he will go, but then he doesn’t. I can be a little like that second son—quick to say yes without considering the whole of what I am getting myself (and my family) into. Jesus talks about this same idea in Luke 14.
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’” (Luke 14:28-30)
Here’s what I would say to my early November self: Inviting people to live with you changes things. Don’t be naïve. Don’t say this isn’t a big deal. Sure, you have the space, but when you downplay what’s happening here, you’re being dishonest. Be honest. It’s better for everyone.
I wouldn’t tell myself not to do it. I still think it was the right thing to do. We did have the space. Still do. These two women were in a jam. They needed help. Did it have to be us? No, it didn’t have to be us, but I do think God uses our connections. He brings people into our lives, and the Holy Spirit nudges us to act. God nudged. We acted. And, in the process, I learned some things.
Lesson #2: I am selfish.
I absolutely love comfort. And, as an introvert, comfort often looks like peace and quiet. It looks like my routine going my way.
Without question, it is good to have that comfort disrupted, and at the same time, I absolutely hate it.
I am a selfish human being. I like for the toilet paper to go on the roll a certain way (the loose end coming out from behind the roll). I like to take off my shoes as soon as I come in the door. I like to turn off all the lights in the house except for the ones immediately being used. I like to turn the temperature in the house down to 55 degrees at night. I like to fill the dishwasher so full that nothing else will fit before I run it. I like to do my own laundry, wash my own towels, make sure every load is a full load and sometimes leave it all in a pile in the middle of the living room. I like to lay on the couch, thinking my own thoughts, and have no one talk to me for hours on end. Replay that last one—except make it a hot bath.
Me doing things my way should not be my paramount consideration. It is good to have life disrupted and shaken up now and then. Just like we told our toddlers, it is good to share.
Sometimes being compassionate is going to shake things up.
Lesson #3: Boundaries are important.
This experience was, for me, a personal illustration of UGM’s larger message. Really helping someone involves both compassion and accountability. One without the other isn’t really helping at all. In this situation, the accountability looked like a deadline. My husband and I decided that the end of February would be our deadline. We came up with that date based on UGM’s 90-day policy. Pretty much everyone who checks into a UGM shelter has 90 days to figure out a long-term plan.
The deadline created a sense of panic at first, but then it led to action. One of the women got a job, committed to a church and found a studio apartment even before the 90 days were up. The other one did the networking required to find a room to rent for $200 a month. They worked together to compare resources and give each other tips. It was a beautiful thing and way better than living with us indefinitely.
Lesson #4: We are all broken.
We will not all experience homelessness. Many of us have solid support networks preventing us from being homeless, even if we were to experience devastating losses, even if we were to make some bad choices. But we are all broken. We are all selfish. We are all sinners in need of a Savior.
“If I were to begin practicing the presence of God for the first time today, it would help to begin by admitting the three most terrible truths of our existence: that we are so ruined, and so loved, and in charge of so little.” – Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers
The two women who came to live with us for a few months were in a place I hope never to find myself. But their circumstances did not define them. They are women loved by God. They need people to express that love. I need people to express that love. In fact, my life depends on it. Every bit as much as theirs ever did.