Help For New Deacons (And Others) Regarding Homelessness And Addiction

What cops and others who work daily with the homeless know but what the national media will not tell you is that a relatively small percentage of people are on the street with nowhere to go due to circumstances beyond their control.

A 2019 study of the homeless in LA found that “about 76%” of the homeless are on drugs or mentally ill. The vast majority of those are drug addicted. Cops and those who deal with the homeless daily will tell you the same thing and they will tell you that the real percentage is likely closer to 90%. Recently Mike Coffman, the Mayor of Aurora, Colorado spent a week living among the homeless in shelters and in camps. He reported his findings in the Denver Post. In the shelters he found “three categories of people experiencing homelessness: the mentally ill, the chronically homeless suffering from drug and alcohol addictions, and those displaced by economic circumstances who were finding work and using the shelter as a temporary means to save enough money to get back on their feet.” He found the shelter to be well staffed, clean, safe and offering a panoply of services to help those who want help to get off the street. There is another world among the homeless, however, the  camps. They spring up alongside and under freeways and, in some cities, take up several city blocks. In some places they take over city parks. The campers want nothing to do with shelters and those who stay in shelters do not stay in the camps, which are as dangerous and wild as the shelters are safe. The encamped homeless, those folks we are most likely to see on the street, will not stay in shelters because of there are rules. They want to do drugs and they want to be able to panhandle and steal to feed their habit. They do not want to get clean and sober. Ask a cop how much money he regularly finds on the homeless campers he arrests or takes to the county hospital for a 48-hour hold. You will be surprised. I was.

Because of the public and private money flowing toward “the homeless crisis” there has arisen a veritable industry devoted to “battling homelessness.” It is in their interest to conflate the two populations. Thus, they report that only about 26% of “homeless” are addicted or mentally ill but like the persons with the sign near the high-end mall, the homeless services industry relies on your guilt and the growing chaos created by large urban (and suburban) homeless camps to generate the sorts of spending that are happening in LA and San Francisco, where each city is planning to spend a billion dollars to address “the homeless crisis” (i.e., the encampments). Are they going to build hospitals to house the chronically insane? No. Are they going to do a mass sweep and take thousands of addicts to detox and build drug treatment facilities? No. They are not going to do anything that will address the underlying problems.

Deacon, be compassionate but be informed. Get the training necessary to spot the signs of addiction and mental illness. Do you know how to look at someone’s eyes and see if they are high? Do you know where to look for tell-tale marks of drug use? Do you know what are the most widely used illegal drugs in your area? Have you talked to local service providers and to the cops, i.e., those who are in touch with the homeless daily about who are neighborhood “frequent fliers”? The hard truth is that, until she is ready to get clean, the only thing an addict wants is the next fix. She will say whatever she must get you to give her the cash she needs to buy more meth or opioids.

Politicians like to spend public money and stage photo opportunities in front of something tangible, like an apartment building but the drug crisis is a crisis of the soul and the connections between substance abuse and mental illness make the problem all the more difficult. The politician is not a pastor. The politician has nothing to say about the soul. When all one has is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Americans are addicted to substances because they are sinful and suffering from the effects (and affects) of the fall. Few addicts set out to become addicts. They start using in order to self-medicate and that leads to addiction and addiction can lead to mental illness (and not infrequently people who are battling a mental illness, e.g., bipolar disorder) will self-medicate with booze and drugs. What drug-addicted and mentally-ill sinners need is the grace of the gospel. Jesus saves addicts all the time but it is nigh unto impossible to talk to people who are out of their mind on drugs. It is casting pearls before swine (Matt 7:6). Addicts need tough love. It often takes more than 28 days to get sober and it usually takes more than one trip to detox and treatment. If Americans want to help the homeless, they will fund detox centers, drug treatment facilities, and hospitals for the chronically insane. The residential treatment model did not work to replace the hospital.

Deacon, handing money to the addict only feeds her habit. You and the church need to get involved in the life of addict who is trying to get and stay clean. The church, not AA or NA, is Christ’s institution for substance abusers. It is the place where sinners of all sorts ought to be able to come and say, “Hi, my name is Jo and I am a sinner in need of grace.” The addict does not need a Unitarian “higher power.” She needs the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The addict needs to get sober and she needs grace of Jesus and someone to lover her enough to say, “No, we will not give you cash but we will drive you to detox.” She needs someone who loves her enough to holding her hand as she goes through DT (delirium tremens) or opioid withdrawal. It is not as splashy as a new apartment complex “for the homeless” but it is what the addict really needs.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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11 comments

  1. Joining a Crisis Intervention Team (C.I.T.) is a great way to get involved. Generally there is a 40-hour training which includes recognizing differences between substance abuse and mental health issues and targeting responses accordingly. It also aids in making connections with LEOs, substance abuse counselors, mental health professionals, and others. Our county has found that with multiple community volunteers involved, the number of SA/MH incidents that escalate into violence have plummeted and LEOs are freed up to do actual police work. Training is run locally utilizing the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) program.

  2. Excellent post — I especially liked your point that it is the role of the church to reach these people not AA and NA. This is a sin issue not the disease concept of AA and NA. Having been involved in both AA and NA in the past I can speak from personal experience that God is either absent or even hated in those meetings.

    This is needed in almost every church of every kind, even churches in the suburbs are dealing with drug and alcohol abuse. I just celebrated 36 years of clean and sober, so I know that God can keep us clean by His grace. Years after getting clean he called me to full time service as a pastor so I know in a very real way the power of grace in the life of a believer.

    One very simple thing every church can do is a recovery meeting on a Friday night (the night when people are most tempted). We started one three months ago, and it started with three guys and in the space of a month it grew to seven guys and it is now an outreach ministry of the church.

    • The three we started with were all new Christians, one who had recently gotten out of prison. He has been an extraordinary example of how Jesus can change the lives of believers

  3. I agree with every single work of the article, and will add a loud AMEN, but I will nevertheless play the devil’s advocate and ask what is to be done with those that reject the gospel and still need help? Understanding that the issue is sin, and that only Christ can provide any real answers, does that mean we just ignore all those that won’t believe (or are not called, depending on your theology)? This is why those that don’t understand faith see the Christian response to these types of problems insufficient. To me it seems that the answers must be broad and multifaceted, all the while acknowledging that real healing involves a changed heart, and that is only possible through Jesus Christ.

    • Hi Jerry,

      Here we should distinguish between the responsibility of the institutional church and Christians acting as individuals or in groups distinct from the visible church. I doubt that the visible church has any vocation from the Lord to provide any such services to the broader community. Christ has not called his church (as such) to get in the alcohol/drug rehab business.

      Christians may and perhaps should offer drug/alcohol detox and rehab services. Such services are important. They say lives but they do not belong to the ministry of the visible church per se. The three principal ministries of the church are the three marks of the true church: the pure preaching of the gospel, the pure administration of the sacraments, and the use of discipline. I wrote the essay on the assumption that deacons are providing “social services” to the community broadly but I’m not persuaded that the church has that vocation either. As far as I can tell, the diaconal ministry of the church in the NT was directed to the members of the church.

    • Dr Clark, another facet of your position is that when a community from the church welcomes or even partners with helpers from outside in this kind of work, or even lends its building to it. they are not being unequally yoked – This is creation work, rather than gospel work.

  4. A large Christian “mission” in our city provides food, shelter, etc, for anyone in need. A few years back, the director produced a documentary to enlighten the public as to the shifting reasons for “homelessness.” He stated that the vast majority of the current “homeless” are drug and alcohol abusers who choose to live the life they do rather than access any of many rehab programs. Every night the mission has plenty of empty beds because of their rules—no drug or alcohol abuse overnight, and a short gospel presentation before meals. He outlined the many programs available free of cost to any that chose to seek help. As he stated, they don’t want help—they want their rebellious life on the street.

  5. Because of the public and private money flowing toward “the homeless crisis” there has arisen a veritable industry devoted to “battling homelessness.” It is in their interest to conflate the two populations.

    The Homeless Industrial Complex. It’s big bux for connected real estate developers, consultants, and politicians. A homeless “charity” buys a single family home well over market value in a nice neighborhood then fills it with bunk beds to house 15 people. The realtor collects a fantastic commission. The charity collects housing vouchers directly from the government so the rent collected on the property is 3-5 times what a family would pay. The charity workers get paid handsome salaries. Usually, boardmembers sit on the boards of multiple charities, multiplying salaries.
    You get new neighbors who get loaded on the meth and commit violence. You go to prison if you hurt one in the process of defending yourself and your family. Numerous arsons begin happening in your area due to unpaid drug debts. Pitbulls begin attacking old ladies walking. More money is thrown at the problem. It gets worse. Currently 10% of the state budget is spent on this.

    Nothing will change until drug users are put in mandatory rehab like they have in RI. Watch “Seattle is Dying.”

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