It’s Messy

Others, Homelessness , Poverty

Contributed by: Inner City Youth Alive


Life has become so complicated these days.  Gone are the simpler days where a rotary phone hung on the wall, ringing a few times a day. You’d pick it up not knowing who might say hello on the other end.  Then you’d plan a time to sit face to face, drink coffee, and pour out your life. And also to listen.  

These days even that which appears simple is not. Even spending a few minutes on Instagram scrolling through memes, pictures, and some sappy quotes is complicated.  In the background your preferences and interests are being mined in order to target you with an advertising campaign.  They want to get into your mind. It appears simple but it’s complicated.

Early in ministry I realized that simple solutions to complex problems were no solution at all.  When it comes to poverty people have proffered all kinds of simple solutions. We need housing! It’s about abolishing racism! It’s about education – people who are educated climb out of poverty!  It seems like many of these “simple solutions” are offered with a sort of condescending tone.  Like, don’t you get it??  It’s obvious!  You know the people I am talking about. Awkwardly, many of the self-assured proponents of simple solutions don’t agree with each other.

This past winter we’ve been seeing some of this around the issue of homeless folks sleeping in bus shelters during our cold Winnipeg nights. You’d have to be pretty callous to ignore the problem, so indeed everyone seems to be talking about this. And simple solutions abound. Homeless shelters should be taking them in! What about churches? Schools are empty at night, why not that? 

If the root of the problem was simply the lack of a home, maybe we could just open up every church, school, and public facility for the homeless so they didn’t have to freeze at night and then, voila, the problem would be solved. If your simple answer was, “It’s racism!” you would seek to uproot any sign of racism – and you would see it everywhere. If you said it’s education you might start an education awareness campaign to address the problem. For some the simple answer doesn’t go very far beyond, “People need to take responsibility.”  

All of these things have some merit but taken on their own, will focusing on them exclusively lead to solutions that work? Take something like “taking responsibility” for instance. It’s my least favourite in the list, because it tends to lack a deeper understanding of the reason that folks end up homeless, but you can’t say that taking responsibility, at some point, is not part of the solution. I mean, when you see people who end up leaving street life, it frequently, in my experience, has a lot to do with taking responsibility. But it’s not only taking responsibility. It’s addressing the pain in their lives. It’s education. It’s relationships that are supportive. It is a multivariate path to the life people dream of.  

There are many factors, and no one set of factors is true across the board. My point is not to make the waters so muddy that you throw up your hands and say “I give up…. there’s nothing we can do.” My point is to say it is complicated, and providing simple diagnoses to complex problems will lead to solutions that just don’t work and end up leading to more harm in the long term.

At some point we need to recognize that it is the coming together of all the fine points that brings about real solutions.  All the points of light must zero in on the complex problem – honoring the fact that it takes the insights of many to ameliorate the suffering of the few. This means that we don’t get solutions to complex problems without a community that is rich in relationship and good communication.

Years ago one of our youth struggled with homelessness. One of the effects of his homelessness was that his feet deteriorated to the point that he could barely walk. Between frostbite, and never being able to take his shoes off, he was walking around in constant pain. One of our staff took him to a podiatrist for help. His feet looked horrible from his homelessness but the doctor, in one awkward moment, held his feet in his hands in the most intimate way. It was like he wanted to communicate something deeper. The doctor looked up at the young man and said, “Do you feel that?” The young man nodded vigorously. The doctor replied, “Do you know what that is?” The young man, who had definitely felt something said, “No, what was that?” The doctor simply replied, “That was love.” 

It was this intimate moment, where one doctor who was a Jesus follower did one simple act of kindness, which became one ray in the gathering light that would help this young man in a deeper way.  The doctor didn’t become a loud advocate for foot hugs or something like that.  He knew what he was doing was just one simple thing.  The key though, that it was about him bridging the gap between himself and this young man in this simple act of mercy.

We don’t believe that complex problems can be solved by simple one-size-fits-all solutions but we do believe that small acts of mercy can become a part of the big story of transformation that so many communities need. So if we all do the small things God calls us to; together our world will be changed.


Kent Dueck

Executive Director at ICYA