Top Ten Homeless Outreach Tips


Have you ever walked by someone who is homeless, been moved in your heart to do something, but didn’t know what would be appropriate or even safe? A lot of us feel a twinge of guilt when we ignore a person who is obviously in great need. Something inside of us knows that we should do something.

I believe that we can overcome our feelings of nervousness, discomfort and social awkwardness to have a meaningful interaction with the homeless that might be life changing for both parties involved. I know this because for the past 14 years I have seen this happen firsthand during our outreaches to homeless friends with New York City Relief.

No one is better at training others to effectively engage with people challenged with homelessness than Josiah Haken, Vice President of Outreach Operations at New York City Relief.  In his blog he gives his top ten tips on how to approach and connect with a homeless person. Life is too short not to love the hurting people around us. Here is some great advice from Josiah on how to get started:

TIP #1

Enter into a conversation:

  • Lead by asking for the person’s name. Repeat it. Say “Nice to meet you ‘Joe.’”
  • It’s important that the person hears you calling him by name.
  • It will also help you remember his name later on.
  • If you end up praying for the person, do so by name.
  • Offer your first name. There is no need to share your last name right out of the gate.

Josiah helping woman

TIP #2  

Listen.  Bring nothing into your listening.  Just Listen.

  • Don’t just tell her what you think, actually hear her.
  • Even if she is telling a story that you think, or even know, is impossible, simply give her the chance to say her piece. Take everything she says as the “gospel” truth.

1 Corinthians 13:7 says that “love hopes all things” so always hope she is telling you the truth, unless what she is asking of you requires some action that you feel is unwise or unsafe.


TIP #3

Ask questions.  Learn something about your new friend.

  • “Where are you from?” “Do you have family in the area?” “Are you a sports fan?” “Do you believe in God?” Show interest. Be quick to laugh at his jokes, but don’t force it.
  • The more interest you show, the deeper you’ll go. Your conversations will be as shallow as your ability to demonstrate that you care about his or her story.


TIP #4 

Be Clear About Personal Boundaries.

  • Just as you make it clear that he or she can be honest with you, don’t be afraid to be honest about personal boundaries with the person you just met. If someone asks why or seems annoyed that you are self-protecting, you can always say, “I just met you! I don’t know who you are!”
    • You are allowed say things like, “I won’t do that.” “I can’t do that” etc…
    • Don’t give out your personal information (phone number, address, email, social media) until you have an established relationship with the person.

EVEN THEN, be wise and don’t do or share anything you wouldn’t with someone you just met at the movie theater or bar.


 TIP #5 

Be Clear About Physical Boundaries.

  • Don’t make anyone feel trapped. Never approach someone with more than 2 people. Don’t hover over an individual who is sitting on the sidewalk or laying down on a bench. If necessary, kneel down or ask for permission to sit next to the person.
  • If you have the option, approach folks with someone of the same gender.  Many homeless women have had terrible experiences with men and will open up more quickly with a female volunteer.


Josiah and couple

 TIP #6

 If someone asks you for money….

  • Feel free to say that “I’m sorry, but I have a personal policy about giving money to strangers.”
    • WHY? Monetary exchange is almost always a poor foundation for a healthy relationship.
    • If someone is panhandling, ask for permission to take some of his or her time.

Don’t assume that he or she wants your company.

By asking, you will show the person respect as a human being and he or she will be more likely to hear what you have to say or be open to your company.


 TIP #7

Giving stuff away.

  • Always prioritize 2-way conversation over bulk distribution. Be wise about how you give things away in high population spots like public transportation stations, busy tourist spots, or in front of a drop-in center or emergency shelter. Don’t make a scene or you might just get a scene.
  • If you have socks, blankets, or toiletries to give away, simply ask the person if he or she would be interested. Don’t assume that he is.
  • If he or she says ‘no’, ask if he/she might know someone who would be interested.
  • If the person expresses a need that can be met by running to the store and buying something small, feel free to do so. Never give the person cash for the same item.
    • GIFT CARDS ARE GREAT (McDonald’s or Dunkin’ Donuts allow the man or woman to purchase something that will give her a safe, warm place to sit and enjoy a meal after you leave).


TIP #8

Don’t wake anyone up. It’s just rude.

  • Homeless folks sometimes average 2-3 hours of sleep a night. They are often awakened by police and security guards and moved indiscriminately. This makes sleep precious.
    • Feel free to observe whether his chest is going up and down. Make sure his lips are not blue.

IF you think someone may not be breathing or his lips are blue, call 911 immediately and loudly say, “excuse me, sir!”


TIP #9

 Don’t leave items next to a sleeping person.

  • These things will probably just get stolen anyway.
  • And if someone is already stealing the pair of socks (or item you left), they might help themselves to the person’s backpack or wallet, with all their ID’s in there, while they’re at it.

Again, relationship is the goal. 


TIP #10

If the person seems intoxicated, high, or in an unpredictable mental state….

  • Do not extend the conversation. Just be kind and compassionate, but assume that this is probably not the best time to make a heart connection over coffee.
  • If the person seems completely out of control or volatile, please call 911 or 311 depending on how severe the situation might seem.

Use common sense.  Don’t call 911 because there is a homeless person talking to himself.


FINAL NOTE:  In seeking out people to serve and talk to, if you cannot find anyone just ask local cops where homeless folks usually hang out. If you literally can’t find a single person to engage, just thank God that everyone in your area appears to have a place indoors. The average life expectancy for someone who is homeless is approximately thirty years shorter than those who are housed (National Coalition for the Homeless Fact Sheet). Know that building a relationship with someone might just add years to someone’s life. Don’t be afraid and don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The founder of New York City Relief likes to say, “God only uses one kind of person: those who show up.” Our homeless neighbors are precious in the eyes of God, which means that they must be precious in our eyes as well. Stop waiting for the perfect opportunity, just get out there and make it happen!


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Willy Wonka Wisdom

Willy Wonka

The Greek playwright, Sophocles once wrote, “To be doing good deeds is man’s most glorious task.” Sophocles is alright, but I am more of a Willy Wonka man myself. In the movie Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Wonka commented on young Charlie’s actions by saying, “So shines a good deed in a weary world”. I’m speaking of the 1971 version with Gene Wilder, not the remake with the creepier character portrayed by Johnny Depp.

Many times, we as Christians get sidetracked with “culture wars”. We can get stuck in just taking a stand against what is wrong in society, rather than doing what is right and good. This is what most people think of as religion: lists of do’s and don’ts, mostly don’ts. Our human efforts at this lean towards legalism that is void of any connection with God’s heart. We can easily forget what we are here to actually do.

Popular conference speaker and author Graham Cooke puts it this way,

“What if the biggest problem in America is not drugs, or pornography, or abortion, or poverty, or low education, or terrorism, or crime? What if the biggest problem in America is simply the lack of goodness? The Bible says we overcome evil with good, so why are we building more prisons than hospitals? Why are there “no go” areas in our major cities? Why do the police have to walk around in combat dress all the time? Why are certain areas of our culture and our society rabidly out of control? I think it’s because the church does not understand who she is, and she is so busy railing against sin, which is not our job. Our job is to bring down the goodness of God into the earth.”

Mans most glorious taskJesus backed up his preaching and lessons with action. His deeds were a living embodiment of what he taught. There was no difference between what he believed, taught and practiced.

There were times in the Bible when spiritual leaders took a tough public stand against what was wrong. For example, John the Baptist publicly pointed out Herod’s sin of marrying his brother’s wife. That got him beheaded. Jesus himself called the Jewish leaders snakes and hypocrites for their proud, manipulative behavior and that led to the cross. If we choose to take this route, we had better have a direct mandate from God to speak and be prepared for the potential consequences. The trend is that prophets usually get killed, because the accused shoot the messengers. If we take a hard stand, we also must be sure that our attitude is one of “loving our enemies” and “blessing those who curse us.” Easier said than done.

You may have heard the phrase that, “People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” It is much easier for people to receive the good news, when they can see tangible proof through our actions that this news really is good.

When we treat people like gold, they stop feeling like garbage.

Jesus teaches this approach in Matthew 5:16,

“Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.”

Whenever it says to do good deeds, the obvious question is “What kinds of good deeds?” Here are just three that God mentions through the prophet Isaiah:

Isaiah 58:7

  1. Share food with the hungry

  2. Provide the poor wanderer with shelter

  3. Clothe the naked

How much more do you think people will be prepared to believe in Jesus after you do these kinds of things for them? If you do the works of Jesus, you will instantly win respect. It is the natural response from honoring others and treating them with dignity. This is the strategy that we use on the 12 weekly outreaches to homeless friends that we operate with The Relief Buses.

When we treat people like gold, they stop feeling like garbage. Most people already feel lousy about themselves and wish they could be a better mother, father, son, daughter, spouse, friend or person. New York City Relief Senior Outreach Leader Brett Hartford (below with outreach team and friend) describes it this way,

Brett and lady

“I am convinced that we would all be a lot happier, more joyful, have more confidence in ourselves, and generally just like each other more if we took the time to remind each other WHO we are.

“There is so much negative reinforcement all around. People telling us that we aren’t good enough, not pretty, intelligent, driven, useful, fill in the blank…

“Tonight, during an outreach on foot that we do every week called Don’t Walk By, I had the opportunity to look a woman in the eye who is challenged with homelessness and start erasing all of that junk.

“I said, ‘You are beautiful. You are capable of doing it. You are not a failure. Your life is not over. You are not invisible. You can do it. You are lovable. God has not forgotten about you. He doesn’t think you’re worthless. He loves you. I love you.’

“Tears flowed. A crack in the hard shell that is used for protection.

“For women living on the streets, my heart breaks. How can I make them feel beautiful, cherished, and valued like God is trying to express to them every day by way of birds chirping, flowers rising out of the ground, and air in their lungs???

“Words. Eye contact. Hugs. Action.

“I told her words. I affirmed who she is, and not the junk of her past.

“I looked her in the eyes-straight into who she is, not what she looks like or smells like, but deep into her soul.

“I asked her if she would like a hug. She said yes.

“She didn’t just want a hug from me, but she asked for a hug from everybody on our team that night.

“Now we need to take more action. She needs resources. She needs knee surgery. She needs a place to lay her head at night that’s not a sidewalk or a guy’s bed who’s taking advantage of her.

“I invited her to come to The Relief Bus the next day for an appointment that we call a Life Care Visit. I told her we would love to sit down with her and figure out what she has tried, what her options look like, walk alongside of her and support her along the way.

“She is beautiful. I know it, now it’s time to start getting her to believe that as well.

“How can we do that better ourselves? Look for the beauty in each other. Look for the good stuff, and call it out. Love your neighbor.”

Brett is doing the first part of the verse in Isaiah 58:7-taking care of this woman’s physical needs. The results are described in verse 10:

and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,

It is what we DO by “spending ourselves” that allows God’s light to shine in the darkness so that the world can finally see who he really is and who they really are. “So shines a good deed in a weary world.”


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Beggars CAN Be Choosers


I have noticed that in many organizations that minister to the poor, the facilities are old, worn and generally lousy looking. That has always rubbed me the wrong way, because I don’t think it reflects how God really cares about the down and out. I think it sends the opposite message-that they don’t deserve any better. It may be that these places are doing the best they can with what they have, but it’s still sad for those who are already on the ropes to endure yet another environment that is depressing and grim.

A good friend of mine, Shawn Small, who leads an organization called Wonder Voyage which leads spiritual pilgrimages around the world, told me an interesting story. He brought a team of volunteers from out of state to work with The Relief Bus, our mobile soup kitchen and resource center for the homeless. A young woman was happily handing out delicious soup and bread to people when one man asked where the subway sandwiches were. She said that there were no sandwiches and that all they had to give out was soup, bread and hot chocolate. She followed up by lightheartedly saying, “Beggars can’t be choosers.” Immediately, realizing what she had said, the young woman was mortified and began to weep. The homeless man actually came inside of The Relief Bus to console and comfort her. Ironically, he ministered grace and forgiveness to the one who had come to help him.

In the kingdom of God, beggars can be choosers. Even if they are unemployed, addicted or suffering from their own bad decisions, their likes and dislikes matter. They don’t lose an ounce of value to God. Having preferences is part of what makes us human. To lose the ability to choose is degrading. I’m not talking about entitlement. Let someone else choose what you will eat and wear for a week and you will see what I mean. If you really want to test yourself, let someone else hold the remote control.

Poverty is not just a lack of funds or material goods. Poverty is also a lack of choices. Education, social connection and money give you more options in life. These things give us power to choose our preferred destiny. Some are born into families who have these resources, while others are born into generational poverty. Children are born into families that have not had jobs for generations. They are raised in an environment where they don’t know anyone who has ever finished high school, gone to college and become profitably employed. Never having been exposed to these opportunities, they are shaped by their environment and trapped in these pockets. This is unacceptable to God, so he intervenes by sending us, the body of Christ.

This is illustrated in a lesson that Jesus gave in Luke 14:12-14:

Then he turned to the host. “The next time you put on a dinner, don’t just invite your friends and family and rich neighbors, the kind of people who will return the favor. Invite some people who never get invited out, the misfits from the wrong side of the tracks. You’ll be—and experience—a blessing. They won’t be able to return the favor, but the favor will be returned—oh, how it will be returned!—at the resurrection of God’s people.”


Jesus told the dinner party that the social misfits in town should be the ones who get to choose the best dishes and wine being served. This lesson was pretty intense. When Jesus spoke about the type of people the host shouldn’t invite to the banquet: rich friends and neighbors, those were the very people were sitting around the table listening to his lesson. I’m sure it made them a little red in the face.

As my friend and CEO of the New York City Rescue Mission, Dr. Craig Mayes says, “We should give our best to the least.”

This wasn’t just a philosophical teaching that Jesus gave. He practiced what he preached. He fed thousands of hungry people and was himself publicly criticized for eating with the riff raff: “And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”” Luke 15:2

Right after the lesson to the party host, Jesus doesn’t let up even a little. He continues by telling a parable about a master who invited people to a wonderful feast. The invitees turned down the invitation because they were tied up with their success and material possessions, which they considered more important. This made the master angry, so he sent his servants out to bring in the poor and handicapped. They gladly accepted the generous invitation, but this still wasn’t enough for the master. He ordered the servants to go out to the streets to compel complete strangers and commoners to also join the party.

We are all just beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread.


This is what New York City Relief does every week. We go to the streets and bring a feast to those who would never be invited to a high society event or dinner. We prepare a place for those who have no place and give the very best that we can offer. We treat them like royalty and guests of honor by coming to serve. We call these people struggling with homelessness, addiction, mental illness and poverty our friends.

birthday cakeA great example of this is when we sometimes celebrate one of our homeless friend’s birthdays. Recently, all-star volunteer Jan Conklin brought a birthday cake for our friend Keith. He is a Marines veteran who is a good friend. Jan didn’t just go out and get any cake. She baked his favorite kind with vanilla icing. Keith’s birthday wish upon blowing out his candles: “I wish that this joy would never end.” Watch this video (left) to see Keith blow out the candles.

We give our best because it is one of our core values at NYCR:

Excellence: Consistent and reliable in always giving our best for the broken, to instill dignity.

Excellence can be a weird thing, because in striving for excellence it is possible to fall into the trap of doing great work to impress others and puff ourselves up. That kind of excellence isn’t very excellent at all. It’s self-serving. It reminds me of the verse that says,

“If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love.” 1 Corinthians 13:3-7

So being excellent for excellence’s sake or to feel good about ourselves is worthless. When we do our best out of true concern for those we serve, it builds up others up without causing them to feel bad for having received help. If they see that love is our true motivation, there is no shame in receiving, only comfort, healing and safety.

We aim to be consistent and reliable, because in the life of a person challenged with homelessness, they need a place where they can find refuge from the chaos around them. They need to know that if they show up at this one place, the staff and volunteers will treat them well and care about them as a person. Having people they can really count on brings great comfort and stability. Knowing they are loved just for being themselves is powerful and helps stave off despair and hopelessness. Like Keith’s Marines who have the motto, Semper Fi, we can learn that to be excellent is to be ALWAYS FAITHFUL.

How about you? Are you someone’s port in a storm? Have you let people around you know that you are there for them? Have you nurtured the relationships at work or school so that others know they are important to you?  Are you a safe place for the broken and failed?


Love that is truly excellent never gives at someone else’s expense. Love instills dignity and value. Jesus gave us the choice to enter into everything he offers us. Love is humble and realizes that we are all just beggars showing other beggars where to find the bread. We can choose to love like Jesus did. Beggars CAN be choosers.


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You Say You Want A R{EVOL}ution


JulieAn Introvert Unchained
Julie Stiefel first came to serve with New York City Relief through our mobile outreach to the homeless in 2003. She never imagined how dramatically her life would take a turn through volunteering:

“When first introduced to serving the homeless, street people, the poor and needy, the un-loved, I was terrified. Being, at that time, somewhat of an anti-social introvert without a solid idea of where I fit into God’s Kingdom.

“The eight plus years of serving with New York City Relief, and the Relief Bus, made such a major impact on my life that I am NOT the same person
that I was.

“Fast forward 15 or so years to the present – God has taken an introvert with a real fear of social situations, and TRANSFORMED that person into an extrovert with so much LOVE in my heart that it nearly BURSTS out and encompasses everyone around me. I have been told that God SHINES out of me!

“Though we now live in a small southern rural community I find that people here face the same issues, lacks, and needs in their lives. God has taught me, and given me, a boldness that could ONLY have come from Him! Many of our new friends keep coming back for more and I have been able to share the source of my Joy.

“In a nutshell, I credit God, and my friends and mentors at New York City Relief, with turning this once timid introvert into a bold, outspoken extrovert sharing His Love totally through relationship evangelism.”

LUISTremendously Changed
Luis Flores was homeless on the streets of New York City. He came to The Relief Bus every week for the delicious food. It was there that Luis met a volunteer who struck up a conversation with him. That volunteer offered to pray for Luis and he accepted. His life was never the same. Luis explained through tears,

“It was a simple prayer, but it brought tremendous change. I felt like a new man. I got housing and am continuing my education in aviation maintenance. The best part is my faith has grown stronger. I’m thinking about mission work and serving more on The Relief Bus and praying for others.”

It took months, but Luis tracked down that same volunteer. He now goes to the man’s church and worships together every week. Both have been forever changed by that day they met. Click on the video above to hear his story.

Both Julie and Luis were swept up in a LOVE REVOLUTION. Their stories illustrate our third C.O.R.E. value at New York City Relief:

Revolution: Life transformation for the homeless, the addicted and those who serve them.

The way The Relief Bus outreach endeavors to help our friends living on the streets to experience life transformation is to first build a relationship, so that they know we care. We start by breaking bread and sharing a cup of soup together. Then we offer connections to resources that can turn their lives around such as shelter, drug/alcohol detox and rehab, job information, and local churches. By using this strategy over the past 28 years, we have seen true miracles happen in people’s lives.

jesus chJesus himself was a radical revolutionary, but not like the zealots of his day that sought to throw off their oppressors through violent means. Jesus had come to infiltrate and subvert many systems: “might makes right”, caste systems, disenfranchisement of the poor, racism, patriarchal dominance, ageism and all other forms of injustice. In this Kingdom:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28

Many of the Jews expected the messiah to overthrow their Roman oppressors. Usually, when a system is overthrown, it is through force and violence. This Jesus revolution was also violent, but all of it was directed toward Jesus himself instead of his enemies. Even though he could have struck down his enemies, Jesus knew the real battle was for the heart of mankind.


“We journey not as those who have much to give and who have all the answers, but as fellow travelers toward light and liberation.”


Jesus came to start not a political revolution, but a LOVE REVOLUTION. Other rulers would fight and scheme for dominance, but Jesus’ followers would lay down their lives for widows, orphans, misfits and outcasts of society. It shook the culture and spread like wildfire. The world had never seen anything like it.

Strangely, Jesus was an agent of change not from the top down, but from the bottom up. He aligned himself with the common man. Rather than rule through power and coercion, Jesus led by example: washing feet, touching lepers, embracing the broken, treasuring the rejected. He called his followers to not Lord authority over others, but to imitate him in becoming a servant to all.

No one could believe what they were hearing. This ran counter to everything they knew and accepted. This message was contagious, and out of the unconditional love and acceptance that people received, they turned from their old ways, sold what they had and gave to those who had not. Rather than seeing what they could get away with, they tried to see how much they could give away. A revolution had begun.

This new movement was one of personal and societal life transformation, but not in the way we usually think it will occur. The way we experience life transformation is not through having all the answers and figuring everything out. As Henri Nouwen said,

“We journey not as those who have much to give and who have all the answers, but as fellow travelers toward light and liberation.”

In this new paradigm, we give up control, lay down agendas and simply start loving people the way they are with no strings attached. We don’t seek a platform as much as a personal connection. The Kingdom of God is grassroots. Life transformation happens one person at a time. Viva la rEVOLution!



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Escape From Fantasy Island!

Fantasy island

400 years ago, the English poet and cleric John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” His meaning was that we only function healthily when we are connected to others. It’s true that we need one another way more than we could ever imagine. We are created to be intimately connected and since the fall of man we have been disconnected, disjointed and disappointed. Proof that, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Genesis 2:18


Yesterday, I went out on a cold winter day to serve on a Relief Bus outreach on the streets of Harlem. I met many people who were starving for friendship, for intimacy, for oneness. A man named Ricardo (left) told me about the 30 years he spent in prison. After being separated from society all those years, now he lives in a homeless shelter, alone and trying to make it on his own. A woman named Daisy told me how she was abusing crack and was afflicted with HIV. A Peruvian man named Jim described his deeply dysfunctional family and how it led to his severe alcoholism.

Each one honored me by sharing the most difficult issue in their life. The burden was too much to bear alone. They needed a fellow traveler in the journey to help carry the load. Somehow they knew that pain shared is pain not doubled, but halved. That is a lesson that I need to learn. Maybe that is why we are commanded, “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” James 5:16


One of the greatest human needs is to be connected to others. The more we are connected, the healthier we are. The more disconnected we are, the sicker we are–and we are generally sicker than we think. Whenever man becomes an island unto himself, he is living on Fantasy Island and is disconnected from reality. I can hear Tattoo shouting, “Da plane! Da plane!” Look it up Millennials. And no, Fantasy Island was not a reality show where they voted people off the island.

The Relief Bus is designed to become a bridge from these “islands” to family. The Bible calls this spiritual family a body. This body has many parts, but each one needs the other to function properly.

One of the cultural hallmarks that epitomizes what it means to be an American is “rugged individualism”. We are proud to be independent and free, to chart our own course and pursue our own destiny. The freedom we have been given is nothing less than revolutionary. Unfortunately, sometimes we get lost in our freedom and become so self-focused on our own destiny that we lose our sense of responsibility for our neighbor, our brother and the community around us. Even as Christians, it is possible to lose God’s heart for the other, the outsider.


Just as being born an American citizen allows us to enjoy certain inalienable rights, being “born again” as a Christian requires us to give up those same rights on behalf of others. Loving others isn’t about getting our way. It’s about laying down our lives for others the way that Jesus did for us. “He became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” 2 Cor. 8:9

Family, community and deep relationships are essential to our wellbeing. Our friends challenged with homelessness are surrounded by people, yet find themselves completely isolated. Cut off from love, many times they wither and become shells of their true selves—ghosts who drift through our society, invisible to the masses around them.

One of our core values at New York City Relief is ONENESS which we define as:

Fighting for each other’s hearts” to achieve deep relationship and intimate community with our friends on the streets, and each other.

Jesus describes how oneness is the whole point and his recipe for changing the world:

The goal is for all of them to become one heart and mind— Just as you, Father, are in me and I in you, So they might be one heart and mind with us. Then the world might believe that you, in fact, sent me… Then they’ll be mature in this oneness, And give the godless world evidence That you’ve sent me and loved them In the same way you’ve loved me.” John 17:20-23 MSG

Cut off from love, many times they wither and become shells of their true selves—ghosts who drift through our society, invisible to the masses around them.



Some of us accept the concept of being one with God, but one with each other? That’s just asking too much. People are too difficult. This is where we are required to fight, not with each other, but for each other. That is fighting the good fight of faith. We were designed to be peacemakers.

Mother Teresa described it this way, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”


It is going to take a lot of effort to overcome the cultural inertia of just taking care of our own business and living a life of “every man for himself.” Many people really believe that God helps those who helps themselves. If that was true, we would all be doomed. God helps us because he knows we can’t help ourselves. That is exactly why Jesus came on a mission to rescue us.

Jesus doesn’t call us into oneness with those who have it all together or those who are worthy. He calls us into oneness with people who are messed up just like us. Jesus is the magnet that pulls us all together into himself.

This oneness looks like intimacy. Intimacy is the goal that God sets for us. We are called to be intimate with God and each other.

How do you know if you are achieving oneness and intimacy? One clue is that true friends tell each other the things that they can’t say to just anyone. To be intimate means to be vulnerable, and to trust someone with the real you. True friends trust each other with their flaws and failures–their secrets.

Ricardo, Daisy and Jim each told me their secrets, because I pressed in close enough to listen and hear their heart’s cry. Each one touched me and changed me. Each one was trusting God for breakthrough in their lives. Each one fulfilled this scripture to teach me about faith:

Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? James 2:5 (NIV)

They honored me with their dark secrets and I honored them with listening ears and a non-judging heart. We met as equals and our hearts united as one. We “drank of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:13) as we prayed together, experiencing Jesus in the midst of us.

We assume that it is the poor who need us, when it is equally us who need the poor. When we see our position accurately, the walls that divide us begin to crumble. It is the poor who Jesus used to free us from the illusions of being self-made people, trapped by our independence. We are the ones who are isolated. They are the bridge from our Fantasy Island to a life of interdependence with our brothers and sisters. They give us a place to live the love of Jesus and to share the material blessing we were entrusted with. They free us from narcissism, separation and indifference. Their lives are the richness our heart aches for. When we meet the poor, we meet Jesus himself. (Matt. 25) He uses them to feed us what we are starving for. The feast is ONENESS. Dig in!


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Love with TEETH
















I have four kids that I have tucked into bed throughout their childhood. Even now as teenagers I still try to visit them right before they fall asleep, so that I can have one more moment alone with them just to be closer.

cardboard-bedWho tucks in the homeless at night? Who watches over them and prays for their dreams to come true?

New York City Relief Outreach Leader Lauren Lee describes just such a thing. She said,

“Every Thursday night I have the privilege of helping Mardum make his cardboard bed right outside of St. Francis of Assisi Church (pictured left). He speaks very little English, but our weekly encounter has grown from a handshake to a hug, a smile to a kiss on the cheek, from a ‘How are you doing?’ to a ‘Can you pray for me?’”

Why would Lauren do such a thing? She is living out one of the core values of New York City Relief. She is living out the heart of God. Not a schmaltzy love that is just fuzzy feelings that are unquantifiable. This is love that has teeth. Lauren backs up what she believes with action. The proof is in the pudding and her actions speaks louder than words.

corevaluesAt New York City Relief, we have four core values and the C in C.O.R.E. stands for compassion. In our world, we describe this as: Tangibly demonstrating God’s love for the poor through humble service.




There is a famous phrase you may have heard, “Talk is cheap.” Sometimes in the church, we are quick to talk about compassion, but slow to do acts of compassion. Compassion is an experience, not a concept. If you haven’t experienced compassion, you may not have experienced Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah described what Jesus’ life on earth would look like:

Isaiah 63:7,9

Compassion lavished,
love extravagant…

So he became their Savior.
In all their troubles,
he was troubled, too.
He didn’t send someone else to help them.
He did it himself, in person.

The root of the word compassion is, “suffer with”. Pity is different than compassion. When I think of pity I think of someone encountering someone else’s suffering and thinking, “that’s a shame.”

The Shame 7

When Jesus encountered suffering, he suffered too. He felt people’s pain. The Bible says he was moved with compassion. His love was so great that he could not stand to sit by idly. He was compelled to do something for the sick, hungry, lost and hurting.

Rather than receiving compassion, most people challenged with homelessness get kicked when they are down. They get treated like con artists, leeches, and irresponsible losers. People with addictions are similarly treated as social lepers. We certainly don’t want to take on the burden of their problems. God helps those who helps themselves right? But, how did Jesus treat actual lepers who were diseased, despised and contagious?

Now a leper came to Him, imploring Him, kneeling down to Him and saying to Him, “If You are willing, You can make me clean.” Then Jesus, moved with compassion, stretched out His hand and touched him, and said to him, “I am willing; be cleansed.” As soon as He had spoken, immediately the leprosy left him, and he was cleansed.  Mark 1:40-42

Rather than receiving compassion, most people challenged with homelessness get kicked when they are down.


Here is a good litmus test to determine if we have the heart of God burning in us: Are we “moved with compassion?” Do the things that break God’s heart break our hearts too?

There is a reason why we don’t always go there. It hurts to love people in distress. It’s not easy. It’s what has compelled our staff and volunteers during a Relief Bus outreach to sometimes take off their own winter coats or shoes and give them to someone who is freezing. Compassion costs us something.

If our love isn’t tangible, if our love has no action, I’m not sure it’s really love.

The American way to help the poor can come across pretty high-handed. We swing in our rope to save the day with a bag full of oversimplified answers. Here’s four spiritual laws, here’s Romans road. Boom! Love goes deeper than that. Love gets down on the sidewalk like Lauren Lee (pictured below) and listens.lauren



But then the question is, “How do we act? How do we lead people who are hurting to freedom and healing?”

Mark 10:45 says, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Like Jesus, we are called to serve. To become a servant means that we lower ourselves in order to lift someone else up. This lowering is called humility. An all-powerful God who came in the form of a weak human baby and then ultimately laid down his life for us by suffering torture and the death of a criminal paints the picture.

Philippians 2:7 says Jesus emptied himself, he became nothing by taking the form of a servant or slave. He threw away image and reputation. He humbled himself and became obedient to death, even death on the cross.

Jesus is calling us to walk in his footsteps, take up our cross and imitate his life of love. What does this look like? It looks like love that has teeth. It looks just like COMPASSION.





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Exciting News! Our new YouTube show debuts!

Introducing our brand new YouTube Show, On The STREET presented by New York City Relief, shot live on the streets of New York City! Click here to watch our first episode and subscribe!



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McDonald’s Is The New Holy of Holies…












Some people watched the documentary film Supersize Me and became convinced that McDonald’s and other fast food companies were a tool of the devil, being used to destroy our bodies and maybe were even hell on earth. Who knows, they might be right. Whether you think it is Heaven or Hell, however, I have to inform you that McDonald’s is the new Holy of Holies- a place where the presence of God fills up the room, healing happens and God’s love is demonstrated to the broken. At least it happened to New York City Relief Senior Outreach Leader Brett Hartford and a man named Shawn during an outreach one Thursday night in New York City…

“Can I have your leftovers, anything you’re going to throw away?”

“Excuse me?”

Again he clarifies. He is sunken down as far as the hard plastic chair will allow. He wants my leftovers… from McDonald’s. (I don’t even want my firsts… and all I got was fries)


On Thursday nights we lead an outreach called, Don’t Walk By. This outreach is a little different than our normal outreaches with The Relief Buses. On this outreach we walk the streets of midtown Manhattan in small groups, searching for people in need. When we find them, we usually offer much needed items like socks, hygiene kits and some friendly conversation.

Don’t Walk By is a collaborative effort in partnership with The Rescue Alliance. Because of this partnership with NYC Rescue Mission, The Bowery Mission, Hope For New York and StreetLife Ministries, we can get someone off the streets and into a warm bed that night and offer possibilities to enter a long term program to transform their lives forever.

Of everything we do, Don’t Walk By has be my favorite outreach, because it takes away all the extra stuff – bus, soup, volunteer rotations, etc. We are left with the pure and raw relationships. Not that the other stuff is bad, because it’s not, it’s beautiful in it’s own setting, but it’s just a refreshing break in the week to have this one outreach out of twelve be completely different. For someone like me, a relationship and conversation driven person, it’s amazing.

It’s amazing to see what happens wshawn-in-mcdonaldshen you make yourself available to whatever happens. No expectations, no agenda, just a “hello” and the available time to see where that “hello” leads.

Tonight I went down 6th Avenue towards a weekly meet up spot at a McDonald’s to connect with some of our long-time friends from the streets. It was in that community that there just happened to be a guy sitting a few feet away, a guy all alone who had been praying for community–a guy named Shawn. (left)

We were connecting with our friends that night. We had purchased dinner for everyone and ourselves as well – community not charity. We were listening, sharing, caring, serving, learning, and just be-ing. Just friends catching up and growing together.

All the while, there is this man a few table away, reading a magazine. I saw him, but decided to watch for a few minutes. He approached me and asked,

“Can I have your leftovers, anything you’re going to throw away?”

Will we welcome the outcast into community by breaking Big Macs together? Is this the missing piece of our faith journey that God is wooing us to dive into?




This really took me by surprise.

What must it take to ask someone that? What does it feel like to be at a point where you hungry enough to eat people’s leftovers from McDonald’s? I’ve never in my life been in that situation.

I’m a foodie. I don’t eat fast food. My family manages our budget in a way that we only eat out a couple of times a month, but they are at good restaurants. But now, at this moment, I am sitting at the epitome of “fast food”, being asked for my contaminated, used, cold, leftovers.

“You don’t have to eat my leftovers. What can I get you?”



“Yes please.”


“Yes, anything you are willing to get I will eat.”

This reminds me of a story from the Bible where a man of zero perceived value finds worth in Jesus’ willingness to love and act:

Matthew 8:1-3
When Jesus came down from the mountainside, large crowds followed him. A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. “I am willing,” he said. “Be clean! (healed)” Immediately he was cleansed of his leprosy.

In both cases, men with nothing to lose and everything to gain, placed themselves in the place of humility. Jesus asked, “Are you willing?”.

In both cases, the response was, “I am willing”.

My job is to be the physical representation of Jesus on the streets of New York City and New Jersey. What would it look like if Jesus was walking around today? How would He respond to what he saw? Would he be too busy to stop?

Do I get it right? Sometimes, yep. Others, nope, not even close. But, I am willing to try.

Are you?


This isn’t just a Brett thing. This is an everybody thing. We all get opportunities every day to “be Jesus”, to love well. Be it someone asking for food, holding a sign in humility, or something completely different. It could be a co-worker who you know is struggling financially. Maybe you should buy them lunch. It could be extending extra patience to the waitress who is doing an awful job, a car who cut you off (I could grow in this area!), or a family member who is continually pushing you to the edge of your patience.

Are you willing?

Give it a try, you never know what type of healing you can bring to the person who is the recipient of your willingness.

Much love all,

Brett (left, with volunteers)


Brett is living in such a way as to be the answer to the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: “your kingdom come, your will be done, in McDonalds as it is in heaven.” Matt 6:10

There are lepers all around us–people that society wants nothing to do with. Will we touch them with our lives and be vessels of healing? Will we welcome the outcast into community by breaking Big Macs together? Is this the missing piece of our faith journey that God is wooing us to dive into?

Consider making a date to do just this. Come volunteer on a Thursday night on the Don’t Walk By outreach. Email volunteer@newyorkcityrelief to book your date. See you at McDonald’s!

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Wild Harlem Wedding Party!


Many girls grow up dreaming of the perfect fairytale wedding. When that dream becomes a reality they spend tens of thousands of dollars procuring the perfect location on a beach by Caribbean waters, in a grand cathedral or maybe a castle garden. Every detail is coordinated to shape the perfect memorable event.

My friend Johanna‘s wedding looked a little different. Located in Harlem at E 124th & Park, Johanna was literally married on the street underneath the above ground subway tracks. It’s an exotic location alright. Many people are bussed in to this spot from the shelters they sleep in at Wards Island. The largest methadone clinic in the city is just across the street. I remember cleaning up a big pile of human poop up off the sidewalk there one day with my friend Rodger Parker.

Johanna was our Director of New York City Outreach and had invested years of her life into the people of Harlem. She is a tall, blond Finnish woman with blue eyes. Johanna first came to NYCR 15 years ago as an intern. Eventually she became a full-time urban missionary to the poor. In our 27 year history, Johanna was our first female Outreach Leader. She has the kind of personality that makes people feel special, wanted and cared for.

Many times on her days off, Johanna would take the train back into Harlem to celebrate birthdays, baby showers and special events with her friends there. It was this kind of woman that a man named Pauli Puirava fell in love with when she was on missionary furlough in their homeland of Finland. Johanna’s work visa had not been renewed, so she returned on a visitors visa to America to continue serving for a few more months. It was a sad time for her and our team, knowing that she had to leave us soon.


It was during this same time that Pauli proposed to her over Skype. He came to stay with our team and serve on The Relief Bus for a month leading up to the wedding (see picture to left). Many friends from the streets got to meet Pauli and give him a once over before they gave their approval.


The energy on the street that day was electric. It was a wedding I will never forget. The crowd in attendance was a motley crue of people challenged with homelessness, addiction and developmental disabilities. They cheered as Johanna walked down “the aisle” (the sidewalk) on the arm of my father, and New York City Relief founder, Richard Galloway.

My friend and VP, General Manager Bill Hoffman and I had the honor of officiating at this wedding. When I asked on the microphone, “Who gives this woman in marriage?”, many friends from the streets spontaneously yelled out, “WE DO!” The love in the crowd was palatable and there was quite a few tears and smiles when Pauli kissed his bride.

Why were so many people filled with joy that day? They told me that Johanna was a special woman who helped many of them. It reminds me of the scripture that says,

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.” Romans 12:15-16

Johanna had loved her friends well and they loved her back in return.

We served 500 pieces of wedding cake that day and danced under the subway tracks. There were many hugs and happy faces. It was a little slice of Heaven for those who didn’t get to attend many wedding receptions.




The New York Daily News featured a great article on this landmark event: Where Love Lives. Read the online version here. You can even watch the wedding video here.

This amazing day reminds me of the parable when the master invited people from the highways and byways, the poor, blind and lame to come to his feast. (Luke 14:16-24) He wanted his house to be full. Johanna wanted her wedding to be full of the people she loved too.







The next week after the wedding, I was out on outreach at the same location in Harlem with The Relief Bus. I met one of the wedding guests named Patricia (left). Patricia pointed down the street to where she used to sleep on the sidewalk for over 20 years. During that time, she was filthy, addicted to crack and weighed only 85 pounds. That all changed when Patricia had a life changing encounter with Johanna at The Relief Bus.

Johanna spoke into her life and gave her hope. Patricia was connected to emergency shelter, than got her own apartment. Today, Patricia has been free from addiction for four years and is a new woman. She weighs 145 pounds and is even getting some new teeth put in. Patricia is full of joy because she is free. She will tell you that it is a miracle that she is alive. Please take a look at her video testimony so that you can see and hear it for yourself.

The Bible describes a pretty special wedding. The groom comes back for his bride who is clothed in white. She is beautiful and has prepared herself to be united with her love.

“Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.” (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.) Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”” Revelation 19:7-9

Seeing Johanna as a stunning bride reminded me of how we will look to Jesus when he comes back for us- beautiful, because of his grace. Patricia and I were both privileged to be guests at this unconventional destination wedding, and like all the others guests, we beamed with joy. The light of God shined in Harlem that day as we partook in the richness of his love together. It was a one Wild Harlem Wedding Party. I will never forget it.




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You Make Me Want To Puke

Recently during outreach with The Relief Bus, I met a young woman challenged with homelessness. Rosie (not her real name) is only 25-years-old. Rosie has suffered greatly on the streets, even been raped. She suffers from PTSD and is sometimes delusional. Rosie believes that the Social Security Administration uses mind control on her, causing her to walk around naked, not realizing that she isn’t wearing any clothes. Such a damaged soul. I have been praying for her and asking for God’s healing in her life. Meeting people like Rosie is the hardest part of being an urban missionary. My heart breaks for her. I feel God’s love for her.

Not grasping reality seems like one of the worst things that can happen to you. In the book of Revelation, God strongly addresses our own delusions. Sometimes we think we have it all together, but he sees the cognitive dissonance in our lives: believing one thing and doing another. Because he loves us he doesn’t sugarcoat this message:

“I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” Revelation 3:15-19 NIV


Ever eaten or drank something that you thought was something else, causing you to get it out of your mouth as fast as you could? One April Fools Day, during our commute to do outreach on The Relief Bus, Senior Outreach Leader Brett Hartford played a prank on Metro Relief Outreach Leader Paul Ballasteros. Brett shot a video of Paul drinking what he thought was coffee, but in fact was a disgusting concoction of coffee, olive juice and orange juice. His reaction is classic. You can watch it here. It’s a funny scenario when it’s a joke amongst friends, but it’s not so funny when I am the person that makes God want to puke.

Which one of these scenarios best describes you:

  1. On fire for God, continually pressing into the Holy Spirit for more power to love and serve those around you.
  2. So cold and spiritually dead that you don’t bother to even pretend that you care for the things of God. Not sure God even exists. Either way, you are over it.
  3. A seasoned believer who knows all the right principles, but doesn’t feel passion for Jesus or others. You find more self-satisfaction in things and accomplishments nowadays. Indifferent to the needs of others.

Are we doing the right things, or do we just know the right things to do?

It is not by our philosophy or principles that we are being assessed in this passage from the Bible, but by our deeds. Are we doing the right things, or do we just know the right things to do? The world will know we are Christians by our love, not our knowledge of doctrine.

If you feel spiritually dry, stagnant and indifferent to the needs of others, obviously it is time to get hot again. So how do we get hot again? Rather than just more prayer and Bible study, let me suggest you stoke the fire of your heart through serving others. It is the deeds of laying our lives down for others that break us free from our own self-serving nature.

I see this continually when people come to volunteer on The Relief Bus. They leave the safe place of the world they know and understand, to enter the risky world of engagement with the lost and broken. They start out nervous and unsure of how to even talk to someone challenged with homelessness or addiction. By the end of the day, they have listened to people’s stories, been moved with compassion, spoken words of encouragement, offered dignity and given loving prayers. So many have found themselves moved closer to Jesus through the poor. These precious friends on the streets pull them back to the core of the gospel, which is the core of life: LOVE.


One volunteer, Angiliea Stark (left) put it this way,

“It was a little scary for me, to be honest. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve become accustomed, like most New Yorkers, to ignore the homeless community. I met some really incredible people and felt my openness to connect with people on a human level did more than filling an empty soup cup. For me and hopefully for them. Looking forward to volunteering again- it’s such an inspiring community!”

This is how we buy gold that is refined in the fire. This is how we store up treasures that moth and rust can’t destroy. This is how we keep the things we own from owning us. God’s treasures are people, especially hurting people. When we love “the least of these”, we are loving Jesus himself.

Although we haven’t been able to solve all of Rosie’s problems, she keeps coming back to The Relief Bus to see us. She knows that this is a place where no matter how bizarre she acts, people will love her unconditionally. She is our sister.

With all of my self-delusions, I keep coming back to Jesus, knowing that he sees my nakedness and will clothe me with mercy. Rosie and I aren’t so different. Maybe we can rub salve on each other’s eyes and be healed of our blindness together.

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