A mere thirty folding chairs occupy the city park where Genesis House held its annual event, One Night Without a Home. Rebekah Lindstrom, an alumni from John Brown University, and Job Smoot, a sophomore music major, played music for the gathered advocates. Creative Dining catered with foil baskets of barbecue and boxes of foil bags of Lay’s Original. Some of the gathered conversed while holding foam plates of food, and cars drove by just beyond the gazebo.
After Lindstrom and Smoot wrapped up, Lisa Burch, the case worker for Genesis House, took the stage. Burch thanked everyone for coming, then talked about the mission of Genesis House, and the issue of homelessness in Siloam Springs.
Homelessness is a larger issue than it may seem. Many people have the experience of seeing homelessness in a larger city. The homeless people who live in cities are often visibly homeless: tanned, perhaps unclean, with tattered clothes and their belongings carried around in trash bags and shopping carts. Culturally, it is this image of the homeless population that most carry in their minds, and while it is not an entirely incorrect image of homelessness, it is ultimately an incomplete one.
In truth, homelessness is a wider category, and homeless people are more diverse. The United States Department of Health and Human Services defines a homeless person not only as a person without a house, but also any person who lives, “without permanent housing who may live on the streets, stay in a shelter, mission, single room occupancy facilities, abandoned building or vehicle, or in any other unstable or non-permanent situation.” This is a definition that includes those fleeing from abusive situations, those who have been evicted and runaways, one that broadens the category for homelessness in Siloam Springs.
Perspective is what is needed when Steve Wanbaugh took the microphone to give the testimony of his experiences with Genesis House. When he took the microphone, he started to tell about what Genesis House did to help him find his footing again. When Wanbaugh initially went to Genesis House, however, it was not to stay around. “I needed a gas voucher. Well, a friend of mine need a gas voucher so we could go and look for a job.” Wanbaugh said. “They gave a voucher for, I think 20 dollars. I didn’t ever get the job, but. . .Yeah, they’re heaven-sent. They’re just what I needed. They sent food with me when I left, and enough for five, six, seven days,” Wanbaugh said.
All of this helped keep him going until he was able to reconnect with his sister and find a stable place to live. Wanbaugh does not fit a normal image of homelessness, but aligns with the definition nonetheless. He does not live on his own, and is not able to sustain a normal lifestyle, and he is only one of many who fit with this definition, and it is not difficult to end up homeless for one reason or another.
There are dozens of ambient reasons a person might find themselves in a precarious housing situation. Some live off of disability checks or unemployment services, programs that are managed bureaucratically, which means that the money from these programs can change in amounts and regularity with little warnings. The people who depend on this income, however, are left with nothing to pay for their groceries, rent or electricity, which places an extreme strain on people, especially those unable to work a physically demanding job, which disqualifies them for many entry-level jobs.
Coral Bradshaw, an illustration major at John Brown University, has experience working with homeless people. Bradshaw transferred into JBU from a Bible college in California, and often participated in ministering to the homeless while living there. In Bradshaw’s experience, ministering to homeless people necessitates seeing them less as homeless and more as people. “I believe that the most effective form of ministry is in valuing another person,” Bradshaw said. “I believe that you cannot fully value another person until you know them and until you have exerted the effort to know them.”
Bradshaw also challenged the Church to a holistic view of the homeless, referencing Christ’s message from the Sermon on the Mount. Bradshaw noted that, in attempting to bring light to the world, the Church instead began casting a shadow, “The Church at large, in a way that is often unacknowledged, is motivated by the same stigmas that we, as Christians, should try to avoid. Often the motivation of the Church in going out and being light to the world is, as it should be, to bring that to a dark place, but often that mentality carries with it a paintbrush that paints dark everybody it meets.”
Bradshaw encouraged the Church to broaden its views and begin looking for people. She said that the mission of the Church is to meet people where they are, “Obviously we are called to have empathy and compassion on every person we meet there, but that empathy and compassion should not motivate us to see that person as an other.” Bradshaw said.