Beyond the Dirt and the Sign

Contributed by Rev. Angel Sullivan

shutterstock_130231589Every day on my way to and from work, I see dirty, gaunt, matted-hair people—some with bikes and pets, other with backpacks and grocery carts—but all of them with a cup and a hand-written sign that reads, “I am hungry—I just lost my job—Will you please help me?” For a time, I would give those that I saw the loose change I had in my car or an extra apple that I had left over from lunch. But after awhile, I found myself having less loose change, and fewer leftovers to give, due to my own financial circumstances. While I knew that an extra apple and a quarter or two from me wasn’t making a drastic change in a person’s life, I still felt bad that I was not able to give, and I felt a deep desire to be able to help in some way. Soon I found and joined an independent ministry which was, unfortunately, short-lived, but it was powerful. It allowed me to be able to connect with the homeless in ways that I may not have otherwise.

Once a month, every first Friday, a group of women and men collected clothes, prepared warm stews, and made sandwiches. At dusk we hit the streets of Tampa to give out to the homeless what we’d prepared and collected, along with bottles of water, and at the same time we had conversation with them and tried to encourage them. It was during this time that I was able to hear first-hand the stories of homeless persons.

I learned that some were skilled laborers who had gotten hurt on the job and did not have health insurance or benefits; the expense of their medical care and their inability to work eventually left them unable to afford to pay rent. Others were escaping abuse and left everything behind just to find freedom. Some had moved here from different countries without the support of friends or family, hoping for a better life but unable to find secure work. Others were veterans, or people suffering with addiction, and some were mentally ill. They were various ethnicities, religions, genders, and ages. To my surprise, I met a few who were well-educated college graduates like me, but who had fallen on hard times. I have to admit, I had made the assumption that those who were homeless might not have had educational opportunities because, of course (I reasoned), if one were educated one would naturally be able to find employment. However, I learned, that is not always true.

After speaking with the people that I met through this ministry, I realized that each person has a story and, more importantly, each person has a life beyond what the signs and dirty clothing told. I came to the realization that if I were to lose my job today and was unable to quickly find another job at the same wages, I would not be able to pay my bills. I would be living on the street. I would be the one holding the sign. And I am not alone.

While reports from 2013 have shown that the decline in homelessness has decreased by 0.4%, there is still much work to be done.

  • There was a decrease in all homeless sub-populations, with the exception of persons in families.
  • The largest decreases were seen among individuals identified as chronically homeless (6.8%) and veterans (7.2%).
  • The size of the chronic homeless population decreased from 107,148 in 2011 to 99,894 in 2012. The size of the veteran homeless population decreased from 67,495 in 2011 to 62,619 in 2012.
  • The national rate of homelessness was 20 homeless people per 10,000 people in the general population. The rate for veterans was 29 homeless veterans per 10,000 veterans in the general population.
  • A majority of persons identified as homeless were staying in emergency shelters or transitional housing; 38% were unsheltered, living on the streets, or in cars, abandoned buildings, or other places not intended for human habitation. The size of the unsheltered population remained basically unchanged between 2011 and 2012.
  • The number of people in homeless families increased by 1.4% between 2011 and 2012; however, there was no change in the total number of homeless families.
  • While the overall homeless population decreased between 2011 and 2012, it increased in 29 states.

After reading the statistics, the issue of homelessness is overwhelming to me. However, after listening to the stories of the homeless persons I’ve met, I’ve come to the conclusion that I cannot let my fear stop me from trying. I have to match my fear with my faith, knowing that when we all work together for the greater good of humanity, God’s power will manifest positive change.
(Statistics are from

AngelSullivan2013smRev. Angel Sullivan, chaplain, serves as the events coordinator on the national leadership team of AB GIRLS, American Baptist Women’s Ministries.

Registration is still open for “Break Every Yoke: Homelessness,” May 5-9, 2014, a virtual mission encounter sponsored by American Baptist Women’s Ministries. This virtual mission encounter offers the opportunity for participants to explore homelessness from a faith perspective. What are the causal factors? What are the risks? How can we support those who are homeless? How can our congregations, or we as individuals, engage in ministries of prevention, support, and advocacy? Each day’s focus will be explored as it has impact upon youth, adults and families, and seniors, with suggestions for advocacy around a range of issues throughout the week. For more information, visit



2 thoughts on “Beyond the Dirt and the Sign

  1. Yesterday, my pastor spoke about that everyone has a story. This is so true for all of us. We really don’t know their stories unless we take the time to listen to them. I remember a time when I saw a man with a sign asking for food, not money, only food. So I went into the Subway shop, bought him a sandwich, chips, and a drink. He was so thankful. He said he needed to feed his 2 kids and wife with it. Four people from one sandwich? I didn’t think I could have him do that. I went in and bought 3 more sandwiches, more chips and more bottled water. This way they didn’t have to share and they would be filled up and not hungry. Angel, nicely shared story.

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