Last spring, my friend Elizabeth called me with an exciting request at (would would become) Shelter KC: could I help them get through a rebrand? My heart leapt. When I started doing freelance communications about 20 months ago, one of my major prayers involved supporting my local community. I'd worked nationally for so long, I wanted to do something to help my hometown.
When Elizabeth reached out, I wondered if the opportunity was God opening a door to answer my prayers. After I met Rev. Joe, the executive director of Kansas City Rescue Mission, it was confirmed. Yes, God was opening a door. I jumped in.
At the shelter: a lot to give and a lot to learn
I quickly linked arms with the development team and dove into learning the culture of homeless shelters and figuring out how to apply communications strategy and planning. We rolled out a new name and logo for the rescue mission, Shelter KC. We also established several communications tools.
I knew God put me at the shelter to offer marketing and communications support, yet as I walked its hallways, I realized I was also there to learn. I took mental notes that became etched on my heart.
My role at Shelter KC came to a close last week and while I'm excited to continue training and strategizing with them (and lead chapel for the women once a month), the marketing is in their hands now. They're going to do great!
Over the weekend, I reflected on what the experience meant to me, and what I learned along the way. Here's the top 7 things I came up with.
1.Once homeless... not always homeless.
If someone is currently homeless, that doesn't mean they'll always be homeless. There is a way out, and many people who find themselves in a homeless situation will get help, fall into recovery and transition into a job.
I met several people at Shelter KC who were once homeless but now they are married homeowners raising families. This changed my perception of homelessness and how I pray for and treat my homeless neighbors.
2. Shelter KC serves homeless neighbors with honor and respect.
God put me at one of the most honorable, safe homeless shelters in Kansas City. How? Here's a few things the shelter does to show homeless neighbors they're worthy of honor and respect:
- volunteers in the dining hall bring meals to each table because many of the guests haven't experienced the privilege of being waited on in some time
- the shelter only uses anti-bacterial mattresses and pillows, and volunteers clean and scrub them down weekly, to keep away infections and bugs
- the food is really good, award-winning in fact. it's not sloppy, soupy goop but homemade meals
- to get new clothing items, homeless guests can place an "order" and "shop"
And there's many, many more examples, these are only a few.
3.There's a huge need for churches to step up.
Homeless shelters, especially faith-based homeless shelters, are the literal hands and feet of Jesus. The commands to feed and clothe the poor are fulfilled daily at rescue missions around the country. These facilities are an extension of the local church.
Yet as I worked at the homeless shelter, I noticed how few churches support it. Don't get me wrong, there's some incredible church groups who faithfully serve. There's generous people who send items each time we post a need. There's a handful of churches giving generously out of their missions budgets. But honestly - it's not enough.
The shelter is struggling financially and I've been wondering why more churches in Kansas City don't support it. Missions dollars are important for causes beyond our country's borders, but they're also critical for the work of reaching the poor, lost and lonely at home. If you're interested in learning more, here's a page I helped write about serving the homeless shelter with a church.
4. Plastic homeless mats - call ahead and ask
I watched Shelter KC staff organize and store plastic mats that it couldn't use, but people dropped them off anyway. There was a viral online video and people assumed if they made the mats, the shelter could use them.
I realized that sometimes, one of the best ways to help a homeless shelter is to take an extra step, call the shelter, and ask for ways to meet a real, tangible need. Don't assume the viral Facebook video is how to actually help homeless people your city. It's more helpful to ask before you act.
5. Panhandler tips.
I learned that sometimes panhandlers are genuinely homeless and need help; other times, they've learned how to scam the system. I've learned that panhandlers appearing as vets or disabled persons know that will bring in more money. Yet sometimes, that's truly their situation.
I learned that even those working inside of a homeless shelter can disagree on how and if to support a panhandler, but everyone typically agrees that a good approach is offering food and pointing them to the nearest shelter.
6. Avoid referring to people who are homeless as "the homeless."
My name is Danielle, I'm a woman, and I live in Kansas City. I'm a wife, a mom, a cancer survivor and an author. I live in a home.
There's men and women coming to homeless shelters with names, they too live in Kansas City and carry unique skills. They are moms and dads, brothers and sisters. They're facing unique challenges with housing, challenges I've not personally faced. But those challenges shouldn't define them.
I learned to change my language and stop referring to the "homeless" when talking about men and women without homes. Person-first language doesn't identify someone by their disability or disadvantage. I will forever carry this lesson with me, thanks to Shelter KC.
7. The source of long-lasting change.
There is hope! Change is happening amongst homeless men and women in Kansas City! People who were once in jail or living on the streets are now sober, clean and living full lives!
One of my favorite stories is out of the Shelter KC Women's Center. Sarah was declared, "no longer diagnosable with what you came in here for." That's real transformation happening my friends!
How and why are lives changing, going from the streets to surrendered and secure? It's not only the shelter, food, clothes, compassion and care. But ultimately, guests are getting told about Jesus: The only source of long-lasting freedom and hope. He is the reason the homeless shelters exist. He is the good news that is changing lives around KC (and beyond!).
Thanks to Jesus, homeless men and women in Kansas City are finding healing. They're getting fed. They're finding home.