A young volunteer named Holiday Zimmerman opened my eyes to the plight of the working homeless. Holiday was nineteen years old, an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, and was volunteering at Mariners in the high school ministry. Because she was majoring in social ecology and criminal justice, one of her assignments was to do an internship in the local school district.
So she visited Back Bay High School, an alternative school populated by students who had been kicked out of the other three high schools in the area.
A Divine Call
Holiday remembers her first day at the high school: “There was a teacher up front typing on a typewriter, and there were three students in the back. They had built some kind of a barricade and were smoking pot. I walked back and saw two teenage boys and a girl, fourteen years old and obviously pregnant, and I literally felt like God spoke to me and said, ‘This is your population.’ Well, as I got to know these three and several other students, I learned that about 80 percent of them lived in motels with their families.
I fell in love with them, and God opened my eyes to the hidden problem of motel families.”
Later, Holiday was in the process of completing her master’s degree in social work, and the struggle of the people she was working to serve had captured her heart. Her passion eventually grew into a ministry called Miracles in Motion that served families and individuals living day-to-day in low-cost motels.
Holiday recalls, “The idea that a working person could go without permanent housing had never occurred to me. I assumed those who had a job could afford a reasonable place to live. And yet, with the average single-family home selling for over a half million dollars in Southern California, and the monthly rental on a small apartment at more than $1,500 a month, scores of people in our area were completely shut out of the housing market.”
It’s easy to become homeless in Orange County, and many families end up living in “budget” motels. Several of these motels were located just minutes away from our church campus. We had no idea.
Ironically, the monthly rental on “budget” motel rooms is about the same as the rent on an apartment — low enough to be affordable, but too high for most families to put money down for the deposit needed to transition to more reliable housing. Like the housing projects in urban areas, low-budget residential motels are often nesting grounds for drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence, gangs, and crime. But unlike housing projects, motel residents may not, by law, remain in their rooms for more than a month at a time. So, every fifth week, the residents are required to move out: to their car (if they have one), a shelter, a friend’s floor, or even the street. Lacking a permanent mailing address, they have a difficult time establishing residence in order to apply for better jobs.
This was — and still is — a huge, relatively unaddressed social issue, and it was unfolding right down the road from us.
Going Where God Is Already at Work
Holiday was able to see the potential of bringing together motel families with people from Mariners who had the knowledge and positive life skills to help people break out of the cycle of poverty.
We saw that serving motel families on a small scale could be a successful venture. It was just a matter of coming alongside those who were already doing the work and helping them to grow and organize the ministry to reach more people.
As we took some time to determine how the ministry would be structured, Holiday continued developing deeper relationships with several families. “The motel families really wanted community,” she said. “They loved going to church. They loved not feeling like these weird homeless people who live in a motel. They really just wanted to feel normal. To them, going to church felt like what ‘normal’ people do.”
As things got off the ground, our ministry planning kicked into high gear. Soon, we determined that the residents needed assistance not only with goal setting and parenting but also with budgeting, financial planning, and basic principles of employment and good nutrition. We pushed several educational components at them: classes, workshops, and individualized training, all geared toward moving them forward to, what we believed, was a much more positive life situation. But the majority of these families couldn’t see beyond the next week, and even that looked pretty grim. Why should they participate in an educational plan? They had no reason to trust that our strategies would lead to anything good for them.
When we experienced difficulty getting traction with classes and seminars, we tried a different strategy and developed an incentive program. Although it followed the same training strategy, we felt that if the families were able to work toward the gifts we wanted to give them, they wouldn’t feel as if they were accepting charity.
Under this plan, the motel families would set their own goals, and as they took steps to meet those goals we would respond with some sort of tangible reward, such as paying their car insurance.
Incentives can be very effective in influencing behavior change, and we did see some families reach their goals. Of course, we knew that as long as we were administering the rewards, we would still be perceived as being in a “transactional” relationship with them, but we felt that, at the very least, we were contributing something to the equation. Lives were changing, and it was a good plan. For a while.
What we failed to realize was how limited our understanding was. We didn’t really understand the dynamics surrounding the lives of the motel families until the day Holiday called Darrell — one of the very first motel residents to be paired with a mentor — and made him an incentive offer.
Darrell had been incredibly excited to meet his mentor, Jim, and their relationship had blossomed. Holiday felt Darrell was a great candidate for the incentive program because he was making positive changes in his life, and she genuinely wanted to reward his commitment and motivate him to continue moving forward.
But the phone call didn’t go as she planned.
The Greatest Gift of All: A Friend
After a few minutes of pleasant conversation, she explained the new program and told Darrell that if he completed three specific tasks, we would assume some of his bills for the month. Darrell fell quiet. Holiday wasn’t sure what was wrong.
“Darrell, I am so sorry if I offended you,” she said.
To her surprise, Darrell got choked up. “You didn’t offend me, Holiday,” he finally said. “It’s just that the church has already given me so much.”
Holiday was confused. It was the first time he’d ever been offered any sort of incentive.
“What have we given you, Darrell?” she asked.
“You gave me a friend,” he said, clearly referring to Jim. “I’ve never had a friend like that before. How could I want anything more?”
For Darrell, it wasn’t the money or the food or our brilliantly designed educational plan that mattered to him. He didn’t really need another program. His friendship with Jim was now a bountiful source of help and hope for him.
Eventually we stepped back from implementing the “incentive” program and went back to the ministry drawing board. This time around, instead of focusing on seminars or incentives, we approached the problem from an entirely different angle: improved living arrangements. With our focus now turned to housing, God began to show us a new path to serving the motel community.
It was really quite simple. We would help the motel residents find affordable apartments, put up the first and last month’s rent and security deposits, and then help them make the move (while continuing to offer them our life-skills educational program).
This seemed like a good plan to us because most of the families were making enough money to pay their monthly motel bill, so in theory they should have been able to pay rent each month, once the deposits were taken care of.
How We Went Wrong… Again
We were genuinely encouraged when the first few families moved into their new apartments. But we soon discovered that many of the families didn’t make the transition into the independent lives we had envisioned for them. Instead, we found we were regularly contacted for help with utilities or groceries — “Just this one time.” Worse yet, some of the families that had previously been warm and receptive to us suddenly became aloof and demanding.
Once again, we had unknowingly created an “us and them” dynamic with our Mariners mentors and motel families.
Despite the challenges of developing healthy, interdependent relationships, great things continued to happen through the ministry at the motel. Whenever a resident and a mentor really connected, we saw miracles.
It Doesn’t Come Easy
Despite the success of mentors, Miracles in Motion also experienced some mixed results. In the case of Leslie, Darrell, and many others, the overt charity and incentives bruised some relationships. Though the volunteers did everything with the intent of helping, an unintentional attitude of condescension characterized many of our early efforts.
Holiday reflected recently on her perceived naïveté as a nineteen- year-old. “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I just wanted to be friends with these people. And that’s what they wanted. Then, when we as a church got caught up in the programs and the education and the incentives, the relationship part of it slipped a lot. But the reality is, here in Orange County, there are lots of resources available for people in need. Through social services they can get food, clothes, whatever they need. But what they can’t get is relationship. We have the opportunity to offer them what we all want: to know someone and be known. These people have been so marginalized; they can’t believe someone would just want to hang out and be with them. They crave a relationship where someone isn’t asking them about whether they’ve met their goals or their parenting ability or telling them how to get a job. They want a friend just like you and I do.”
We have learned that when people like Darrell experience the life-changing grace of God through the love of a caring mentor and friend, they often just want an opportunity to give back. They have something truly unique to offer a hurting world. Their lives visibly show the miracle of God at work — the miracle God does through people who just love.
That’s the church. We don’t have all the answers. We don’t always do it right. But we are willing to love, as Jesus has loved us.
Excerpted with permission from Love Without Walls by Laurie Beshore, copyright Zondervan, 2012.
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Sometimes being the Church does not feel like a love story. Sometimes we get it wrong. We trip over our own helpfulness or “charitable work”. We are messy people who mess it up. How can you contribute in your own fellowship of believers to show the love of God to those in need in your area, your city, your community? Even if you feel you have very little to offer, or have a messy history (maybe especially if you have a broken story to share!), how can you help the hidden problems around you? Today, let’s ask the Lord to open our eyes to the hidden problems around us so we can love those in the greatest need. Come join the conversation on our blog!