Homelessness can affect women of every age, ethnic background, and educational status through unforeseen circumstances, poor life choices, and more.  Regardless of the cause, open-mindedness allows the everyday difficulties that result to be opportunities for ministry and healing. It is true that knowledge is power, and when someone is struggling, believers are called to be the hands and feet of Jesus.  Homelessness is not a respecter of persons and should not be looked upon with pity or disgust, but with a desire to gain understanding and contemplation of one’s individual responsibility. Common problems arising for homeless women need to be approached using biblical principles and theoretical concepts to help women rise above the negative concepts of homelessness to establish safe housing and long-term stability. 

Struggles of Homeless Women, Mothers, and Children

            A theology that allows God to remain in the midst of homelessness evokes uneasiness in believers who have accepted the idea that homelessness is a problem for the state and government officials to handle. According to Nixon (2013), “the human meaning of inequality is often experienced as oppression and exploitation, powerlessness and the destruction of relationships” (p. 62).  He further explains that the treatment of inequality is often experienced as shame and humiliation. The goal must be to develop the people centered theme Jesus’ life provided as an example in the Bible.  A Christian’s commitment to equality is founded in God’s affirmation that all people are of equal worth, regardless of their differences in social class, gender, and so forth (Nixon, 2013).  TheBible states, “Rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all” (Proverbs 22:2 NIV).  God’s love is seen throughout scripture as He defends, protects, and shows love to the poor and the oppressed.  Allowing God to remain in the midst of homelessness requires treating everyone as an equal and recognizing that they are not a homeless person, but a valuable fellow human being who is experiencing homelessness (Snodgrass, 2014).

            Homelessness puts a strain on relationships and creates difficulties not experienced by middle-income families with the ability to meet unexpected financial needs.  Data clearly shows that homeless women were usually poor prior to becoming homeless, and their parents and friends were often low-income and unable to provide substantial financial help (Williams,2016).  It leaves children isolated from normal childhood experiences of spending time engaging in small group activities with friends.  Sleepovers, inviting friends to their home, and visiting friends are all affected by lack of housing, transportation, and the stigma of inviting a homeless child into a group of stably housed children.  Additionally,“The National Center on Family Homelessness reports that 71 percent of homeless families are single-parent families headed by women” (Williams, 2016, p.27).  This data reveals a desperate need for the church to have programs in place to help homeless women meet basic needs.  A practical example of this would be to provide free childcare for homeless children so that the parent could take the necessary steps to obtain employment. Meeting this basic need would build trust and prevent unwanted family separations due to lack of safe, affordable childcare.  Having dependable childcare in this scenario would support healthy parenting practices, and ensure the children would receive adequate nutrition while in attendance.  Finally, this could lead to opportunities to minister in other ways including sharing the Gospel and helping them transition from an identity of homelessness to finding their identity in Christ.   

Age-related Risk Factors and Difficulties

            First, when discussing homelessness in children, the definition of a secure shelter needs to be broader than a roof over the family’s head.  It should include a safe place to play and develop, and provide an environment where child-initiated actions are encouraged (Bradley, McGowan, & Michelson, 2018).  Additionally, the environment should afford the opportunity for positive parenting through parental self-care that fosters healthy stress management and wellbeing. Unfortunately, quantitative studies reveal that homelessness often results in a lack of positive parenting with parents experiencing a negative self-concept, and feelings of shame, failure, and parental guilt (Bradley,McGowan, & Michelson, 2018).  This creates difficulty in providing an adequate child-friendly environment since their focus is on their inability to provide safety, food, clothing, and shelter.  Finally, many state the lack of childcare is a barrier that keeps them trapped in unemployment and stuck in these impoverished conditions (Bradley et al., 2018).  The result appears to be a loss of control as parents surrender to the rules of shelters or other authority figures as they reach out for help, leaving the question to be asked, “Where is the church?”

            Second, there are risk factors and difficulties more prominently faced by young women experiencing homelessness.  For example,“survival sex is usually understood, in the context of homelessness, to be the exchange of sex for accommodation and/or other material support” (Watson, 2018,p. 2).  These women miss out on opportunities to experience normal life experiences that teach personal responsibility and natural consequences of success and failures when they feel forced to go against their own morals to survive.  According to Watson (2018), “Young women who engage in survival sex are regarded as being particularly at risk” (p.35).  Sadly, these women feel the impact of being labeled as practicing risky behavior, as if they have chosen survival sex over available healthy alternatives.  Believers are instructed to “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.  Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Proverbs31:8-9).  Therefore, the church should take practical steps to acknowledge their vulnerability and address the lack of opportunity and resources available to young women facing homelessness.  

            Third, older women will also face their own set of difficulties prominent in their age group.  Age-related health concerns are common among all women, but for those experiencing homelessness, barriers to medical treatment can increase poor health conditions.  Preventive measures such as yearly exams are not easily accessed.  Research shows these women have greater or equal to four emergency department visits during a one year period than younger women in similar situations (Salem & Ma-Pharm, 2015).  Women in this age group expressed concern that mental health is not concurrent with medical treatment.  Hence, they face the barriers of added referrals, additional transportation needs, and lack of paperwork such as identification to access health insurance resources (Salem & Ma-Pharm, 2015).  Another challenge can be having a chronic condition that requires diet changes to manage the condition. The provision of healthy meals, nutritional education and transportation to medical care are practical ways the church can minister to this age group of women. 

Addressing Homelessness

            According to The National Center on Family Homelessness, less than twenty-five percent of homeless children in the U.S. complete high school (Murphy & Tobin, 2011).  They explain that these children have, in general, persistent underachievement, poor to average grades, and struggle with being behind grade-level.  Further, Murphy and Tobin (2011) state that students who experience homelessness are much more likely to be chronically unemployed as adults. Social workers and other school-based practitioners often collaborate with professionals inside the school such as teachers, cafeteria staff, and administrators to provide the best school setting possible for these children to learn (Canfield, 2015).  However, the greatest impact of homelessness is felt outside of school, where the security of daily routine and provision is disrupted.  For example, “many times school lunch is the only meal a homeless child may have over the course of a day” (Canfield, 2015). In addition to providing the basic needs of food and clothing, the church can offer needed school supplies, a safe place to study and mentors willingly invested in the child’s education.

            Establishing healthy self-care is a positive step for women trying to rise above the negative effects of experiencing homelessness. However, the limited research on this topic appears to conclude that there is a need for additional research and intervention.  There is a reported lack of compassion and the need for medical professionals to address their own biases towards homeless people and recognize the impact that their negative treatment has on this vulnerable population (Woith, Kerber, Astroth, & Jenkins, 2016).  Studies revealed that many members of the homeless population avoided medical treatment as much as possible because of the barriers and personal experiences of being treated unfairly based on their living status.  For instance, the topic of being talked to as a person instead of a number or someone who was not worth treating because they could not afford to pay for the treatment repeatedly came up (Woith et al., 2016).  The study showed that most of them go through illness alone, preferring to tough it out or ignore the symptoms rather than facing the stigma and lack of respect they have encountered from professionals. Sadly, some reported they believed animals would receive better care than the homeless (Woith et al., 2016).  The results of this study prod the question of how this could change if the church provided hands-on advocacy for homeless people and tried to be a voice for fair treatment.  

            In addition, mental illness in the homeless population is difficult to treat. There are lower rates of attendance for mental health appointments and retention of treatment due to transportation and financial barriers (Caton, 2017). Comparably, one-quarter to one-half of people experiencing both homelessness and mental illness have not completed high school. Moreover, addiction is greater in these homeless people who also struggle with mental illness, and being dual-diagnosed places them at increased risk of not receiving adequate medical treatment(Caton, 2017). Since these challenges are exaggerated by the discrimination and social marginalization, it markedly interferes with seeking help.  According to Caton (2017), providing an environment of social inclusion for people suffering from the noxious effects of discrimination and stigma remains a challenge. An additional way that the church can help in this situation is to provide new friendships and engage in meaningful activities as a way to facilitate positive change and build self-esteem (Canton, 2017). It would seem that the church must step outside of its comfort zone by entering the community and going where the homeless are located. In doing so, opportunity will likely arise for fellowship, ministry, and growth in both the person experiencing homelessness and the person reaching out to offer support. 

            Change is needed in community supports for women to overcome homelessness.  There is a necessity for “decontextualizing problems from the social, political, economic, and/or historical influences that support them” (Williams & Baumgartner, 2014, p. 244).  This allows professionals to see the individual as a person and understand that the problems originate within individual experiences.  Narrative therapy offers a framework for how to normalize the stigmatizing language used to define and categorize the experience of homelessness (Williams & Baumgartner, 2014).  It addresses several of the barriers identified in this paper by influencing “the language with (and about)participants, our attempts to respect individuals as the experts in their own lives, and how we framed problems, such as making sure that we did not frame problems as residing within the bodies of individuals” (Williams & Baumgartner, 2014, p. 245). Thus, narrative therapy provides the hope that collaboration from the community and the individuals seeking help can occur in a reciprocal process to shift the avoidance of treatment due to feeling unvalued. 

            Job security is another difficulty that has barriers for women seeking employment that men are less likely to face such as child care and lower pay (Groton, Gromer, Mennicke, & Lee, 2017). Also, the need to dress professionally for an interview and the effects of weather on a person’s appearance were noted barriers.  These problems need more attention and appear manageable to some degree by community and church involvement.  For example, a church that provides a clothing closet and a place to shower each morning, a computer to search job opportunities, and transportation to job interviews would be an excellent start.  However, this ministry would benefit from a follow-through plan to assist with childcare needs, daily transportation, and hygiene needs once a job is obtained and until the women could establish affordable housing and transportation. 

Theology and Biblical Application

            The overall culture of women experiencing homelessness “amounts to a serious degree of physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual suffering” (Nixon,2013).  Jesus understands homelessness and has experienced similar suffering.  Stories are told throughout the Bible that describe experiences of suffering and pain, giving meaning and purpose to Jesus’ experiences on earth and value to the homeless women included in all mankind that He died to save.  Stories told by homeless women are often of serious pain, suffering, and loss, but this co-exists alongside “the will to survive independently and with dignity” suggesting the potential for transformation and empowerment through storytelling (Nixon, 2013, p. 147).  When storytelling is founded on the stories and biblical principles of scripture, there is opportunity to discover a new identity in Christ.  For instance, “the incarnation of Jesus illustrates a radical inversion of the concept that it isGod who provides us with a home, as human beings learn what it means to be home to God, and so paradoxically, also come home to God” (Nixon, 2013, p.171).  Jesus stated, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Matthew 8:20).  To think of the King of Kings as homeless creates a need to think twice about the stigma placed on the homeless population. Would the church be willing to place that stigma on Jesus if He were on the earth during this century?  Would the same ministry and outreach afforded to people currently experiencing homelessness be given to Jesus, or would the ministry for Him be enlarged, with increased resources, participation, dignity, and respect from the church? 

 In conclusion, the church cannot solve the problem of homelessness, but the church can offer hope and provide the path to the One who can meet every need, Jesus Christ. Women and children experiencing homelessness need to be seen as people first, and treated as valuable individuals with potential.  The church must make room for a theology that allows God to be in the midst of homelessness and make an effort to live a people centered life by showing love to the people experiencing homelessness.  It is not enough for the church to pray; it is necessary to also fill the gaps in community resources.  This is accomplished by advocating for the fair treatment and dignity of the homeless and providing basic needs of food, clothing, shelter, and assistance with childcare and transportation.  The church should be educated on unique difficulties that apply to different age groups and be prepared to meet those needs.  Also, opportunities for self-care and programs for children to partner with the school are needed from the church.  Finally, the church must reach out to this population and become the hands and feet of Jesus.

References

Bradley, C., McGowan, J., & Michelson, D. (2018). How does homelessness affect parenting behavior? A systematic critical review and thematic synthesis of qualitative research.Retrieved from https://link-springer-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/article/10.1007%2Fs10567-017-0244-3

Canfield, J. (2015). School-based practice with children and youth experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from http://www.oxfordscholarship.com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/view/10.1093/ acprof:oso/9780190213053.001.0001/acprof-9780190213053

Groton, D., Gromer, J., Mennicke, A., & Lee, J. (2017). Give us a chance: Understanding job seeking among women experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/joec.12060

Murphy, J., & Tobin, K. (2011). Homelessness comes to school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press doi: 10.4135/9781452275314

Nixon, D. (2013). Stories from the street: A theology of homelessness. Retrieved from https://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu

Salem, B. E., & Ma-Pham, J. (2015), Understanding health needs and perspectives of middle-aged and older women experiencing homelessness. Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary-wiley-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/doi/full/10.1111/phn.12195

Snodgrass, J.L. (2014). Spirituality and homelessness: Implications for pastoral counseling. Retrieved from doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1007/s11089-013-0550-8

Watson, J. (2018). Youth homelessness and survival sex: Intimate relationships and gendered subjectivities. Retrieved fromhttps://www-taylorfrancis-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/books/9781351864336

Williams, J. C. (2016). A roof over my head, second edition: Homeless women and the shelter industry. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu

Woith, W., Kerber, C., Astroth, K., & Jenkins, S. (2016). Lessons from the homeless: Civil and uncivil interactions with nurses, self-care behaviors, and barriers to care. Retrieved fromhttps://doi-org.ezproxy.liberty.edu/10.1111/nuf.12191