When most people think about helping people experiencing homelessness, they think about donating money, food, clothes, or time to homeless shelters. While shelters serve a vital need, fewer people realize that most shelters require their residents to leave each morning and don’t allow them to return until later that evening. For someone experiencing homelessness who cannot work, or someone who does work but perhaps works shifts and doesn’t have a predictable schedule, this creates a lot of hardship.

“People experiencing homelessness don’t have places to go during the day, and especially not places to go that are happy and excited to see them. The Starbucks barista never says ‘Man, I can’t wait for the homeless guy to come in today!’” says MaRanda Kiser, the director of Love Wins Community Engagement Center. “We’re at the door saying ‘Man, I can’t wait for the homeless guy to come in!’ More than that, we know his name is Rob, and her name is Christy, and his name is John and her name is LaDonna.  We offer relationships, dignity, support and conversation.  In essence, we offer humanity and consistency in the lives of people who have little of either of those things.”

Love Wins Community Engagement Center (CEC) was founded by Hugh Hollowell (of Biscuitgate fame). It began as a program under Love Wins Ministries in 2007, which at the time involved sharing food in the parks of Raleigh, and eventually evolved into a hospitality house where people experiencing homelessness could come and grab a cup of coffee, a sandwich, and some fellowship with people who loved them. In 2016, the CEC was spun off from Love Wins Ministries and now operates independently with 501(c)(3) status. “Homelessness is a series of losses. There are the obvious losses – house, job, family – but also what I call the three big losses of homelessness: The loss of choice, the loss of a place to be (and to be yourself) and the loss of being a participating member of the larger community,” says Hollowell. He offers an example of the loss of choice: “You go to the shelter, which opens when they tell you, you go to bed when they tell you, you wake up when they tell you, eat what they tell you, shower when they tell you.  You have to leave when they tell you, and you can’t come back until they let you.

‘Beggars can’t be ______.’

A few weeks ago I was speaking to a group of six year olds, and half of them could fill in the blank. At six years old, less than 2500 days of life in their little bodies, and they already had been taught that people who need help should not be granted agency over their circumstances.”

Hollowell often talks about community and how important it is to those experiencing homelessness. He believes the opposite of homelessness isn’t having a place to live; the opposite of homelessness is community. By creating the context for community to develop, Hollowell believes that it offers those experiencing homelessness a chance to restore some of the losses they are experiencing – a place where they can just be themselves and that’s the only thing expected.

Kiser and Hollowell are used to hearing and seeing plenty of misconceptions about people experiencing homelessness. Kiser lists myths like people experiencing homelessness must not be working, or that those who aren’t working are bums. She says many people who experience homelessness are working but aren’t paid enough to be able to afford stable housing – an excellent example of “the working poor.” Kiser says, regarding people who don’t work, “What people don’t seem to understand is that oftentimes our folks have issues that make meaningful work impossible for them. Mental illness, especially schizophrenia, is very common in the homeless population and that is simply not their fault. They can take medications, but that works well on some and not on others. I have a hard worker at the center who loves to mop, but he also talks to the mop. He can talk to the mop all day at the center and we completely accept and embrace him, but I can’t imagine him mopping at a hospital or a restaurant. He has behaviors that make working impossible for him.” Hollowell talks about the myth of “helping” people experiencing homelessness. He says, “They don’t need your help nearly as much as they need your resources, your connections, your privilege and your advocacy. They need your help to remove obstacles and to help them achieve their goals, as defined by them.”

Hollowell and Kiser encourage people to read the CEC’s blog as a starting point to learn more about the experiences of the people who can be found at the CEC. Kiser also suggests the book “Take This Bread” by Sara Miles. When asked what he wanted people to know about poverty and homelessness, Hollowell says, What I really want people to know is not information about poverty and homelessness, but to instead know people who are experiencing poverty and homelessness. We live in a world where many of us know the names of the entire cast of Game of Thrones, but no name of anyone who makes 1/3 our income. All of the faith traditions tell us to love our neighbor, but that is hard to do unless we actually know our neighbor.

Love Wins Community Engagement Center is a 501(c)(3) organization that runs entirely off of donations from folks like you. All donations are tax-deductible. You can donate electronically here, or mail a check to Love Wins CEC, PO Box 28837, Raleigh, NC, 27611 (any donation is appreciated, but monthly pledges are especially appreciated). Alternatively, you can help out with in-kind donations here, set up a time to learn more and volunteer by emailing the Operations Manager/Volunteer Coordinator Alyssa at alyssa@lovewinscec.org, and donate food to their food pantry.