When I tell people that I live in a homeless shelter I usually get one of two reactions. The first is admiration and appreciation. The second is a look that tells us they think we’ve lost our minds. When I look at our decision, I sometimes think the second reaction has it right.
I do live in a homeless shelter. That’s a true story. I’m not speaking hyperbolically or symbolically. My wife and I made the decision in November to move our family of 7 (if you include our dog) out of our house and into a facility that would soon serve as an emergency shelter for individuals and families experiencing homelessness. I had been on the board of directors for this organization for almost 8 years, been involved with the hiring of a visionary new director, and was fully invested in the vision for what this new program could be.
As changes in our organization came in great waves (thanks HUD), we met, prayed, and debated as a board about what type of organization we needed to be. Part of this new vision of housing services included an emergency shelter. But not a typical shelter. We wanted something different. Something that, while evidence-based, thrived on intentional community. Something that actually started with recognizing and honoring the dignity and self-worth of all the neighbors we serve. It soon became clear that we didn’t need hourly staff in this place. We needed someone that was willing to live life with these people. We needed someone whose whole job it was to experience community and develop relationships with others. Someone that shared this vision. We needed someone to move in.
I am a career social worker (BSW through PhD), and words like trauma-informed care and housing-first roll off my tongue as perfectly as lyrics and rhythms flow from Chance the Rapper (I honestly have no idea what that means, but my students assure me that the analogy fits). My wife has a BSW, but has never practiced social work. My kids are privileged, just like I am. We like being comfortable. We loved our house. But God made it pretty clear through a series of events that I can only (and skeptically) define as divine. God speaks repeatedly in scripture that we are to help the “least of these.” As a Christian social worker, I love to throw this fact thoughtlessly around like I throw my kids shoes at them when they leave them in the hall (I am mostly joking). But it was time to put my money where my mouth was.
We welcomed neighbors into our facility about 2 months ago. So yeah, we are still newbies. But the last few weeks can only be described as a cataclysmic collision of faith, social work, and ethics. They have been some of the hardest weeks of my life. Talking about ethics is easy when you don’t live next door to those you serve. Boundaries are important to learn, but how do you tell someone knocking on your door (sobbing) at midnight that “sorry, your crises needs to wait until office hours tomorrow” – or turn down a meal prepared by someone that lived under a bridge last week?
There is no leaving work. I teach full time, then go home. To my new home. A home where I learn more about the world than I could ever teach my students. A house where my kids learn more about injustice and tolerance than I could ever instill in them. I teach social work, but have found I know little about true social work. I am also afraid that over the next 2 years, I will find that I know little about myself. Wow. That’s hard to type.
This is not something noble that I did. At least I hope that’s not why I did it. Honestly, God was so clear on wanting us to do this that I was afraid of what would happen if I said no (shout out, Jonah). Sure, anyone can say that a single person doing this is brave. That doing this right out of school is quite the adventure. But what is terrifying, and what keeps us up at night (besides the knocking on our door) is that we are not single people. We are a family. Putting yourself in the line of fire is one thing. Putting your family in it is another. That is what people think is nuts (sometimes ourselves included). So many times we have actually said the words “but our family’s needs come first,” or “this is fine, as long as our family is fine.” But that is not really the case. That is not what God has called us to. Because it might not be fine, just like we can’t tell our clients it will always be fine. It is one thing to put others needs before your own. It’s another to willingly put others’ needs before those of your family. That is where the intersection of faith and social work has taken me, into deep, terrifying waters.
This is what God created me for, this is why I am a social worker for these 2 (ish) years. I know this is ultimately still a selfish endeavor. I will be a better teacher because of this. My kids will be better people because of this. My family will be blessed much more by our neighbors than we can bless them. And, if we can manage to help a person or two along the way, even better.
Stephen Baldridge is Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Social Work Education in Abilene Christian University. He and his family of six currently serve as the hospitality coordinators for a trauma-informed emergency shelter in Abilene, Texas. Stephen has been a member of NACSW since 2010. Learn more about housing first principles at https://youtu.be/pwdq2VWavtc, and about trauma-informed care of people who are homeless at http://www.traumacenter.org/products/pdf_files/shelter_from_storm.pdf.