The homeless “epidemic” in the United States is only getting worse and it’s up to the Church to ramp up efforts to alleviate homelessness and addiction in a society obsessed with comfort and safety.
That’s according to Matthew Barnett, pastor of The Dream Center in Los Angeles, a 400,000-square-foot building that houses and helps homeless families, veterans, kids who have aged out of the foster care system and need a place to live, victims of human trafficking, and people who have addictions — all free of charge.
“The epidemic is unlike anything I’ve ever seen and it seems to be worsening,” Barnett told The Christian Post. “We’re battling it day by day. We go to parks and feed people, talk to them and offer shelter. We spend a great deal of time simply getting to know them. Those connection points are the only way to solve the homeless problem. You can give free housing but if there’s no change of heart or interpersonal relationship, it’s going be hard to make it through whatever they’re dealing with. Life has gotten them to a place where they want to disconnect.”
“The job of the Church is to provide them with that connection point,” he added.
Co-founded with his father, megachurch pastor Tommy Barnett, in 1994, the faith-based nonprofit houses close to 600 people with more than 40,000 receiving food and services weekly. The organization offers residential and outreach programs, aiding in both immediate and long-term transformation.
According to Barnett, the misconceptions surrounding the homeless community are numerous.
“First, people think everything is related to mental health,” he said. “But a lot of times, the problem is drug addiction. Once they come into a program like ours, which is one year, we see life unfold. We start to see the healing and recovery of the mind. Of course, mental health is an issue and everyone addicted to drugs is mentally damaged, yet we’ve seen a lot of healing and repairing take place as they become sober and are elevated by those around them."
Another misconception is that many homeless individuals are “too far gone to change,” Barnett said. “It’s all about relationship connection. We’ve realized that the only way to get someone out of that cycle is by showing up and being present. Some people are homeless for three years, and one day, there’s an awakening where a relationship led to change.”
Homelessness isn’t always the result of “poor choices,” he stressed, as many people “simply couldn’t pay their bills for a few weeks and ended up homeless.”
“Los Angeles has priced everyone out of the market and people are just trying to make it,” he said. “People didn’t make this choice, it’s just too expensive to live.”
Barnett’s passion for “the least of these” began at an early age. He shared how, growing up, he would travel with his father to the inner city every Sunday to pick up homeless individuals and bring them to church.
“My father is very successful and visionary, but he’s got a lot of patience when it comes to the calling God gives him,” he shared. “He would pick people up before church and take them to eat after. Watching my father’s kindness and compassion influenced my own ministry deeply.”
At one time, Tommy Barnett’s church, Dream City Church in Phoenix, Arizona, was listed as one of the fastest-growing churches in America. Around that time, 200 wealthy members of the church met with the pastor and said, ‘Our church is influential. We’ve noticed you busing homeless people into our balcony and it’s affecting our church. We’re beyond that now.’”
“Basically, they were saying, ‘you’ll lose our financial support if you keep bringing homeless people here,’” Barnett recalled. “My dad said, ‘I love each and every one of you guys, but there’s no way I’m going to stop bringing those people in from the street.’ Unsurprisingly, many of those men never came back to the church.”
“That’s when I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to demonstrating radical compassion for people.”
Now, nearly 26 years after its founding, the Dream Center Network consists of more than 150 centers helping individuals and communities across the globe.
In his new book, One Small Step: The Life-Changing Adventure of Following God’s Nudges, Barnett shares stories from his own life to encourage Christians to focus on serving others by simply paying attention to the needs of those put in their paths and then doing what they can to fulfill those needs.
“As Christians, we are called to break out of our routines and comfort and start trusting those things that God has put on our hearts,” he said. “We need to get to a place where we’re not simply surrounded by our own needs and decide to invest in another broken life.”
Serving others, the pastor argued, “does more for you than the people you’re trying to reach.”
“That’s one of the great things about serving,” he said. “As a pastor, I have to constantly be aware of my own selfishness and intentions. It’s a wrestling match of wanting the world to revolve around you versus serving someone else.”
Now, the Dream Center is responding to the needs of the local community as the COVID-19 outbreak leads to more and more shutdowns. Since schools have closed, the center announced it will be open from 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. to provide meals for families.
There are no specified mealtimes and the center reports food will be served any time during the 11-hour time frame. To comply with CDC regulations, it is a "pick-up-and-go" system for those who walk into the center. There's also a drive-thru option available.
Additionally, the Los Angeles-based center is putting together care packages to be delivered to the elderly and other individuals in need.
Encouraging Christians to live an others-centered life, Barnett cited the example set by Jesus in the New Testament book of Matthew: “Jesus is getting ready to go to the cross, but right before He goes to his death, He’s healing a leper. Listen to that inconvenient thing. Allow your life to become unleashed and listen to the nudges of the Holy Spirit. When we do that, great things will happen.”
Stepping out in faith and serving others begins with simply saying “yes to more things in life that are constantly challenging us to serve,” according to the pastor.
“Little acts of compassion done with great consistency can change the culture,” he emphasized. “I’m calling on Christians to live their life with the awareness of being a servant.”