Five things to know about our neighbors experiencing homelessness

Guest post by Josiah Haken

I’ve worked at New York City Relief, a Hope for New York affiliate that serves men and women living on the streets, for seven years now. In that time, I have talked with countless individuals struggling with homelessness, addiction, mental health issues, and every kind of physical and emotional trauma you could imagine.

But I have also been astonished by the movement of God in the lives of my neighbors who are homeless. I have learned from them and their experiences, and I have come to know and love God more fully as a result of knowing and walking alongside of those who many of us would consider “the least of these.”

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are five things I’ve learned over the last seven years about how to best love my neighbors experiencing homelessness:

1. Sometimes all you can say is “I’m sorry.”

When someone is detailing the horrors, challenges, and circumstances that have led them to a place of homelessness, sometimes there really isn’t much to say other than, “I’m sorry.”

Most homeless folks are dealing with trauma that the rest of us could hardly imagine, let alone empathize with. Yet, my experience tells me that if we have the courage to follow God into a space that we don’t understand or feel equipped to handle, there will always be others who meet us there to make up the difference.

2. Helping someone is not about a return on investment.

After seven years of doing this work with countless failures and false starts, I think the point is simply to remember that value is defined by presence, and not by productivity. With every failed attempt to help someone get off the street, we are given the opportunity to redefine how worth is ascribed.

If you think your investment is only as valuable as the return you get, you will be perpetually disappointed and you will constantly attach strings and expectations to your generosity that will drain the power out of your sacrifice. The point is that to live and love like Jesus means ascribing worth to the worthless, hope to the hopeless, and mercy to the merciless, regardless of what they do with it along the way.

3. Our homeless neighbors are not a problem to be solved.

What we think about homelessness matters. If you assume every panhandler or homeless person you see is addicted to drugs or alcohol and cannot do anything but spend their money in a self-destructive manner, you will inevitably miss the opportunity of a lifetime to engage with — and learn from — the child of God who is right in front of you.

Richard Galloway, one of the founders of New York City Relief, likes to say, “The poor are not a problem to be solved, but a portal to the heart of God.” After seven years of traveling in and out of that portal, I can absolutely affirm that there is nowhere on earth you will feel the presence of God more powerfully than when you’re talking to a new friend who sleeps every single night on a cardboard mattress.

4. Homelessness is not a state of being.

That guy you walk past on your way to work every day is a human being who is dealing with homelessness, not a homeless being. There is a difference. In our society we are way too conditioned to associate our being with our doing. We are not what we do, and the same should be remembered about our homeless neighbors.

Our society almost always considers homelessness an identity rather than a situation. This way of thinking has infected us all. We must consider the language we use and the way we talk about people in order to change the way we interact with them. As long as we think that our homeless neighbors are more “homeless” than they are “neighbors”, we will treat them like an issue to be addressed instead of person to be loved.

5. Loving our neighbors is not a cherry on top of our theological sundae.

We tell volunteers all the time that one of the main priorities of our organization is to “love the person in front of you.” We also believe that the mandate of Isaiah 58 “to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter — when you see the naked, to clothe them …” is not just an add-on to our faith.

This is essential to the call of every Christian. It is a call to connect with people and point them to local resources and programs that offer food, shelter, clothing, and the chance at a new life through advocacy and rehabilitation — and to new life in and through Jesus Christ.

Josiah Haken is the VP of Outreach at New York City Relief. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and two children. You can read more about him and his work with NYC Relief at This post originally appeared in the February 2019 Redeemer Report.

An online course on poverty and your relationships

So you want to get involved, to give back, to make a difference in the lives of those less fortunate.

Perhaps you’ve donated to Helping Up Mission and other organizations, and maybe you’ve volunteered with us. These are all wonderful things – but you want to go deeper. You want to move beyond transactional interactions to real, mutual relationships with people who are materially poor.

But where do you start?

You might consider working through the course Are You A Good Neighbor? with a friend.

Are You a Good Neighbor? is a self-paced online course from the authors of When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor… And YourselfHere’s how they describe it:

Through the course, you’ll learn how to:

  • Discover why healthy, two-way relationships are an important key to effectively helping people in poverty.
  • Transform your heart, change your everyday habits, and improve your ministry with the poor.
  • Learn from poverty experts, and apply that knowledge in your life, church, and community.

The course is designed to help you take an honest look at your beliefs, habits, and practices as they relate to poverty. You’ll develop some simple next steps you can take. And you’ll gain an expanded vision of how God is at work in the world.

Check it out.

– Chaplain Vic

God-Sized Hole (poem video)

God-Sized Hole
by Teddy M

Burning down my house of cards
I’m left sifting through the ashes
Embers drifting through the night
The framework down it crashes

The wreckage from the past behind me
It litters a broken road
I plod along a beast of burden
Driven by his master’s goad

I need to feed the monster
That has latched on to my soul
No matter how hard I seem to try
I can’t fill this God sized hole

Willingly I sell my soul
Ten dollars at a time
And trade my family, friends and life
For just another dime

Now these four walls are closing in
My world it keeps on shrinking
Captain on this listing ship
And down with it I’m sinking

I scream out loud to God for help
But it’s Him I cannot find
I’ve been swallowed by the gates of hell
And it’s driving me out of my mind.

It doesn’t have to be this way
I can stop anytime I want to
But fear it keeps me chained in darkness
So all I’ll ever do is haunt you

Passing through the stream of life
With hardly the smallest flutter
The word that I would use to ask for help
I just cannot seem to utter

This God-sized hole is just so big
That no light or joy escapes it
This demon has its claws in me
And I just can’t seem to shake it

All these years have passed me by
Time it slips right through my hands
Wondering how I got this way
What happened to all my plans?

I gave it all away for nothing
And cheaply sold my soul
No matter what I try to do
Only God can fill this hole.

For years, men in the addiction recovery program at Helping Up Mission have written poetry as a part of their recovery process. Now, they have gathered, edited, and published a sampling of their writings as a book: War of Grace: Poems from the Front Lines of Recovery. This video was produced in collaboration with the amazing team at Mozell Films.

You can download the ebook and audiobook: free of charge, at:

A recovery poem by Jason (video)

A recovery poem by Jason N:

Standing on this rooftop
In this beautifully broken home
My city all around me
As far as my eye could roam

The lights and the chatter
Streaming through my mind
The things I can remember
And some I’ve left behind

There’s a quiet desperation
Hanging in the air
Things seem to be in ruins
And it smells of disrepair

There’s roads down there, so many roads
That I’ve often traveled on
A bad turn here, a bad turn there
And I wonder where I’ve gone

The city lights so bright
They seemed to sing out my name
The side streets so bleak and dark
And always filled with shame

But there’s good in this city!
There’s a desire which still burns
And it’s hidden in plain sight
Around every twist and turn

So don’t just stand there angry
And think what this city’s done to you
This city has its own life
And you hurt it a little too

So I’ll be standing on this rooftop
In this perfect time and place
I’ll pray for my city
And gladly defend its case


For years, men in the addiction recovery program at Helping Up Mission have written poetry as a part of their recovery process. Now, they have gathered, edited, and published a sampling of their writings as a book: War of Grace: Poems from the Front Lines of Recovery.

You can download the ebook and audiobook: free of charge, at:

Giving Back (video)

This video highlights the recovery stories of three men, as told by their loved ones.

  • Wayne is studying at Stratford University to become a chef.
  • Aaron is mentoring young boys in the city through Acts4Youth.
  • Drew is on staff here at Helping Up Mission, handling media and communications.

Watch short interviews with these three men here:

“Defined” was produced in collaboration with Mozell Films.

Join the conversation on our Facebook and Instagram pages!

Videos debuting at our 2016 Banquet

Today is our 2016 Graduation Banquet – one of the most memorable moments of the year for us at Helping Up Mission. We partnered with Mozell Films to produce new videos, and today we’re releasing them to the world!

A Community of Hope

This video is an overview of who we are and what we do.

Giving Back

This video highlights the recovery stories of three men – Wayne, Aaron, and Drew – as told by their loved ones.


Recovering addicts give brutally honest definitions of shame, vulnerability, and hope – showing how the path from shame to hope leads through vulnerability, not around it.

The Serenity Prayer

Many people are familiar with the first stanza of the Serenity Prayer, written by Reinhold Neibuhr. But have you heard the whole thing?


We just released an ebook/audiobook collection of poems written by our men. Go to our poems page to download it for free!

‘Thus Always To Dragons’ – Sic Semper Draconis and the fight of faith

The dedication page to our new poetry book reads:

“Dedicated to the many men who have graduated from Helping Up Mission – you give us courage for the fight. Sic semper draconis”

Here’s the story behind that obscure Latin phrase, as told by our chaplain Vic King.

Have you read The Drowned Vault by ND Wilson? There’s an intriguing Latin family motto hidden in there: sic semper draconis. It’s a play on the Latin phrase sic semper tyrannis, which has a strange and storied history.

“Thus Always to Tyrants”

Sic semper tyrannis was the cry attributed to Brutus at his assassination of Julius Caesar, and in 1776 it was adopted as the official seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia after they declared independence from Great Britain.

“Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” – A medal coined by the State of Virginia in 1780

Several decades later John Tyler, a Virginian boy who would one day be the tenth president of the United States, led a revolt against his despotic schoolmaster. Tyler and his classmates tied the teacher hand and foot and locked him in a closet at the end of the school day. When the teacher was found and freed, he confronted John Tyler’s father, who dismissed him with the Latin phrase.
John Wilkes Booth’s diary records that he hollered “Sic semper” after shooting Abraham Lincoln in April 1865, referencing Caesar’s assassination. And Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in April 1995, was wearing a t-shirt with the Latin phrase and a picture of Lincoln. Clearly, the pedigree of the phrase sic semper tyrannis has become less noble over the centuries.

Behind the Tyrants: Dragons

But with his variation, sic semper draconis, Nate Wilson not only revives the spirit of righteous rebellion, he recovers its biblical roots. Our ultimate enemy is not an earthly tyrant, it is a hellish dragon.
‘Thus Always To Dragons’ - Sic Semper Draconis and the fight of faith 2

A page from ND Wilson’s picturebook account of Genesis 1-3, The Dragon and the Garden.

It was in the Garden of Eden that a serpent deceived our first mother, and our first father betrayed his Maker, sending our race into a tailspin of shame and ruin. God’s judgment on the serpent is to send him crawling on his belly – the implication being that, before this curse, he had walked. (What do you call a snake with legs? A dragon.)
But God doesn’t leave it at that. He promises Eve that from her line will come a dragon slayer, the Dragon Slayer, who will crush the beast and free his people from the tyranny of sin. The protoevangelium tells the serpent that “he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” The dragon will be trampled, but at great pain to the One who does the trampling.
Fast-forward to Revelation 12, where John is given a visionary perspective on Christ’s first coming:
And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.
The scene on the ground in Matthew 2: the tyrant Herod hears rumors that a threat to his throne has been born. That paranoid despot orders the slaughter of all the baby and toddler boys in Bethlehem. Revelation 12 gives the scene in heaven: behind the tyrant was the dragon. The devil was seeking to devour the Christ-child, but he is thwarted, and Jesus and his family escape to Egypt.
‘Thus Always To Dragons’ - Sic Semper Draconis and the fight of faith 3

Chris Koelle’s “Protoevangelium”

At the start of Jesus’ ministry, he faces off with the dragon once again. This time, it’s alone in the desert. And again our Lord comes out unscathed. Theologians have made much of Matthew 4 as Jesus’ recapitulation of Israel’s history: Israel went into the wilderness for 40 years to be tested, and so did Jesus. But unlike Israel, Jesus never wavered. He is the new Israel, and he is the second Adam. He lived the life that Adam failed to live, and died the death that Adam (and each of us) deserve, taking the serpent’s strike on the heel… but rising to life on the third day, crushing that dragon’s head.

Here Be Dragons

But the Great Dragon is not the only dragon. We can be, we have been, dragons. In one of the most vivid conversion stories in the world of Narnia, CS Lewis pictures the gift of salvation as being “un-dragoned.” Douglas Wilson (ND Wilson’s father) puts it this way in a lecture on Lewis:
Eustace was miserable as a dragon and discovered that he was utterly unable to heal himself or prepare himself to be healed. When he tried to remove the dragon skin by himself, all he was able to do was get down underneath his dragon skin — to the next layer of dragon skin. And you know while you are reading this passage, beyond any shadow of any doubt, that as long as Eustace was doing his own scraping, it would be dragon skins all the way down.
‘Thus Always To Dragons’ - Sic Semper Draconis and the fight of faith 4

Pauline Baynes’ illustration of Eustace the dragon

What had to happen was Aslan’s work – the lion had to carefully claw the dragon skin off of the boy. Here is how Lewis describes it, in Eustace’s voice:

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. . . .
Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off — just as I thought I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt — and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and more knobbly-looking than the others had been. And there was I as smooth and soft as a peeled switch and smaller than I had been. Then he caught hold of me — I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on — and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon as I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone from my arm. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again. . . .
After a bit the lion took me out and dressed me . . . in new clothes.
There it is, baptism and all: through faith in Christ, we are un-dragoned. And now, Paul tells us in Ephesians 6, we fight demonic forces with the weapons of the Spirit. We have been given the full armor of God, that we may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
In my work as a chaplain at Helping Up Mission, I see a lot of dragon-slaying. I have the privilege of walking with men as they do battle with the dragons of addiction and trauma, sins they’ve done and sins done against them, the spectres of shame and guilt that hound them like the Nazgûl, those deathly riders in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings. I see men thrust the sword of the Spirit down the dragon’s throat and out the back of its head. I see men walking into new life with freedom from the dragons they had become, and the dragons that were pursuing them.

The story behind the art

I wanted to make that spiritual reality tangible in some way. Here’s what I came up with. I had an image floating around in my head for awhile of an emblem: a manly fellow, somewhere between St. George and Jesus, wrapped about by a dragon as he shoves his sword or spear down its throat and out the back of its head.
I reached out to Chris Koelle, an artist and printmaker in South Carolina. (Chris is perhaps best known for his epic graphic novel versions of The Book of Revelation, The History of Redemption, and Job.) He created this design, which we had printed onto 4” round stickers.
‘Thus Always To Dragons’ - Sic Semper Draconis and the fight of faith
Now, at Helping Up, I give these stickers to the men I counsel. The obscure Latin phrase and the powerful image have become a shorthand, an icon of their struggles and the power of Christ in them.
It’s a struggle we all live with, and in Christ, it’s a fight we can win. Sic semper draconis.