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When it comes to defining what it means to be homeless, this seems like a no-brainer. The truth is it is not that easy. From top to bottom, those who work regularly with the homeless and those who study homelessness struggle to determine what makes someone homeless. Case in point: The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines homelessness as:

“People who are living in a place not meant for human habitation, in emergency shelter, in transitional housing, or exiting an institution where they temporarily resided,”

The Department for Health and Human Services (HHS) states their definition as:

“An individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.”

The definitions share similarities, but the disparities are there. One department states that anyone without a permanent residence is homeless and one states that as long as a person is in a place, even if that is a night-to-night shelter, that person is not homeless. The Department of Education defines homelessness differently than either of those two departments.

The trouble with this inconsistency in definitions is it leads to eschew numbers in counting the homeless and understanding where the homelessness problems are located in the United States. It also causes problems in understanding how those numbers look now compared to last year. When the department that oversees the provision of shelters for those experiencing homelessness and the development of affordable housing (HUD) defines homelessness in broader terms than the department that is charged with health and human welfare (HHS), there can be a lot of problems. Add to that, the Department of Education using yet another definition, when the fastest growing demographic of those becoming homeless or in imminent danger of homelessness are those under the age of eighteen.

While the final authority on that definition lies with HUD, there is an incongruent understanding of what homelessness looks like in the United States today. The homeless population is notoriously difficult to track no matter what definition we use. Many of them, by nature, are transient and then there is the problem that we face here in Obion County of what is known as the “hidden homeless”. As we have already shared, most of us, when picturing someone who is homeless, picture someone who lives under an overpass, doesn’t bathe too often, if at all, and is probably begging for something with a sign on the side of the road. But the “hidden homeless” don’t look like this. Counting this group is challenging since most of these people find a place to stay for the night or for a short amount of time. The fact of the matter is these people who are couch-surfing to get by are often just as chronically homeless as those you picture when you hear the word “homeless.” They are just less visible.

We have already shared with you that homelessness happens at the same rate in rural areas as it does in urban areas, it just doesn’t present itself in the same ways. If we are defining homelessness in terms of living on the street or in a car, we will never understand rural homelessness. When we don’t understand the problem, we choose to remain ignorant of the problem. We can make an effort when it comes to homelessness in Obion County, but we have to understand what it means to be homeless and what the real problems are and how we can help and that more times than not, the easy answer (such as a hand out) isn’t the right answer.

(Andy Wiggins is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Obion County, Tennessee.  He is also a facilitator for Project HOPE which is a juvenile delinquency prevention program sponsored by The Bridge.)

Next week:  “Homeless in Obion County:  Real Stories”

It is a humbling feeling to realize that Jesus Christ did a pretty good job of being the savior and he didn’t need your help. After failing to effectively minister to the first struggling woman we encountered through the Bridge ministry, we knew that we needed to learn from our mistakes. We never again wanted our good intentions to HURT someone instead of HELPING them.

So we prayed.
We researched.
We reflected.
We studied.
We prayed some more.
We painted.
We cleaned.
We repaired.
We prayed.
And we blessed our donated house with scriptures all over the walls.


We knew that God was leading us. He was setting the stage for HIS help and HIS strength to work through our ministry. And we learned to be patient. People around us would ask, “You’ve been working on this for 2 years. Aren’t you tired of it?” “So when are you going to get a resident? It’s been a really long time.”


God’s timing is not our timing. Connections were being made. Relationships were being built. A message was being taught. The foundation was being laid for what God intended for The Bridge to be in our community. Each time we sat down to review our policy we rearranged, discarded, added, and built on what was becoming exactly what we had named it…


Mission Statement
The Bridge of West Tennessee, Inc. exists to bridge the gap between the world and Christ.

1. The Bridge will nurture and DISCIPLE women who desire to continue their journey in a Christian lifestyle as they nurture their children in the admonition of the Lord.

2. The Bridge will educate women in Biblical principles and Christian life skills.

 3. The Bridge will foster relationships with other local ministries and support their mission work locally and abroad as they work to bridge the gap between the world and Christ.


That is what the Bridge is about. But in a busy world with so many places to go and so many things to do…


As Christians, we want to see people change. We want them to seek restoration. We want them to turn their lives around. We want them to be followers of Jesus.

But we want it on our time frame, with our blueprint, neatly cut with our cookie cutter, and placed carefully inside of our self-constructed Christian box.

cookie cutter

If change takes too long then we quit. If habits aren’t altered on the first attempt, we give up. If attitudes are long to change, we walk away. If it doesn’t happen as we planned we are done.

And what is even worse than quitting or walking away or giving up is thinking we are JUSTIFIED in our impatience.
**After all, if they would just do it MY WAY, then everything would work.**

my way

The lesson we have learned is that true discipleship and lasting change takes TIME. Lots and lots of time.

It is messy. It is hard. It keeps you on your toes. And it forces your knees. It is exhausting and exhilirating. It is spontaneous and it is scheduled. It can be ugly, but it is so beautiful. And it forces you to commit to TIME. A real relationship and the rest of your life. TIME.

Time to talk. Time to pray. Time to laugh. Time to cry. Time to fall apart. Time to heal. Time to study. Time to understand. Time to fall down. Time to rise up. And time to grow in Christ.

“How long is your program”, you ask. The answer: As long as it takes.

We finally realized that if we don’t expect ourselves to be on a time schedule to “get it together”, then how can we possibly expect that of the struggling women we help?


The biggest obstacle women face when encountering our ministry is trust. Can they trust us to hang in there with them? Can they trust us to not throw our hands up and determine they are too big of a mess for us to handle? Can they expect us to experience “compassion fatigue”? Can they be transparent? Will we love them enough to look past their brokenness to see the potential God has placed in them?

After the first year in this ministry, the answer to all of those questions was a big fat NO!

But thank God he gave us enough TIME.

Time to talk. Time to pray. Time to laugh. Time to cry. Time to fall apart. Time to heal. Time to study. Time to understand. Time to fall down. Time to rise up. And time to grow in Christ.

And now we walk beside them. For as long as it takes. For as long as they need. Forever if necessary. Isn’t that what God wants from us?

TRUE DISCIPLESHIP. It spans across the rest of time.

Matthew 7:3  “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? “

With 2 houses donated to a group of overly excited people ready to conquer the world for Christ, you would think we were ready for the road ahead. Little did we know that in all of our excitement to help struggling women, we would find out that the first people who needed help was us.

The help we needed was not financial or material or organizational or business oriented or  motivational. It was help with PERSPECTIVE.

In working with our first struggling woman we quickly experienced what is sometimes referred to as compassion fatigue.

expectations 2

We saw her needs.

She needed a house. She needed motivation. She needed to rely on God, not drugs. She needed a good job. She needed self-discipline. She needed healthy relationships. She needed mentors.

Need. Need. Need.
And we gave. gave. gave. Until we gave out! We became skeptical, mistrusting, unsure, and tired.

Loving others shouldn’t produce fatigue.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.
But we did fail. The first woman we ever helped left us. It was her choice and it was on good terms. But we had to sit around looking at each other wondering if God set us on this journey, how have we managed to fail so miserably?


I found a description of “bad” help that describes everything we tried to do in the first few months of our ministry.

You’ll know “bad” help when:
1. The helper claims s/he is an expert about you (it’s not true – you’re the expert about you)
2. The help is one-size-fits-all, that applies the same tools and approaches to everyone – it’s not tailored to your individualized case or scenario.
3. The helper assumes you need “fixing” or believes you’re the problem.
4. The help you receive keeps you stuck — you keep experiencing the same the problems over and over.
5. The helper is enmeshed with you – s/he does not support you to grow beyond the help they give.
6. Receiving help is a negative experience that drains you of your vitality, hope, and excitement for life. (Or, on the other hand, the help is so overly-optimistic that it doesn’t reflect reality and leads you astray).

“But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. This is why it is said:
“Wake up, sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.” Eph. 5:13-14

expectations 3

The light had shown on our PERSPECTIVE. We began to consider things we had never considered before.

We were a group of middle class, white, American women. We had never wanted for anything physical in our lives. Our material needs have always been met. We were church going, Jesus loving, Bible believing, faithful women. We seemingly had all of the tools to be helpful for someone in need. But could it be possible that we were very wrong and very


Maybe we needed a new PERSPECTIVE? Maybe what we have always been told were the answers to success were not the answers at all? In all of our desire and effort to help a struggling woman we had

given her a house
given her clothes
given her advice
given her toys
given her kitchen appliances, and beds, and furniture
given her money
given her rules
given her expectations
given her words of wisdom
brought her to church
read her the Bible
played with her kids
and wore ourselves out.

Why didn’t it work?

It didn’t work because we had failed to realize that WE ARE BROKEN.
We are just as broken as the people we are trying to help. We are their equals. We are lacking. We are in need. And WE ARE NOT THE ONES WHO WILL FIX THEM.
We had the wrong expectations.

Have you ever reached a place where you realized “I have no idea what I’m doing!”

And you cry out to God, HELP???!!

good intentions

I THANK GOD EVERY DAY THAT I AM BROKEN. Realizing that has been the best thing that we have ever done in the Bridge ministry. It has produced patience beyond belief, hope that is immeasurable, and success that only comes from a gracious God.

The months that were to follow our failure were the most transforming time in my life.
We are still learning to help without hurting. And we are excited to share our new


We have all had them. Sometimes it is from the front desk of a hotel. Sometimes it is your mom yelling up the stairs on a school day. Sometimes it is finding yourself at the bottom of the barrel and knowing you need to make a change.

Three and a half years ago I received a different kind of wake up call.

God literally woke me up…at 4:00 a.m.

Now, I know what some of you are thinking. It sounds a little sketchy. But I learned a long time ago that when God really wants you to do something, he will find away to communicate it to you. I used to doubt that. But after years of God being faithful to follow through with His plans, I have learned not to resist those deep down, gut feelings that He is leading in a certain direction.

It wasn’t some crazy, wild experience that would cause people to think I’d gone completely off the reservation. He just woke me up one morning…gently… and with a persistent thought in my head.

“I need to buy a house.” “I need to buy a house?” “WE need to buy a house.”

wake up

I laughed to myself and tried to go back to sleep.

But it was there again. “Buy a house.” “Me? Buy a house? I already HAVE a house. And we can barely afford this one.” “See if you can find a house.”

Now wide awake, my next thought was “You have got to be kidding. I just want To. Go. Back. To. SLEEP!!”

But I didn’t. BUY A HOUSE…okay. So, I sat up in the bed, got my computer, and began looking at really cheap houses on real estate sites in our area. That was when my husband woke up and asked, “What in the world are you doing?” I yawned and told him, “God woke me up and we are supposed to buy a house.” He just stared at me. Then I said, “Yes, really. God wants us to buy a house.” He stared at me for a few more seconds, then he shrugged, said “Ooooookay!” and turned over to go back to sleep. We have had wake up calls before. They have become no surprise to him.

He also knew that 2 days before we had prayed with a group of friends to be used by God. We prayed that God would reveal to us how we, as Christians from different denominations, could work together to do something for our community. So this wake up call was welcome and expected.

A couple of days later, my husband, having full confidence that it really was God calling, went to the bank to see about getting a loan. We had crunched the numbers and figured that even if we had to rearrange our finances, we needed to try to buy a house. God had plans.

I was sitting at my desk at work when he texted me a message that said…
“What would you think if someone GAVE us a house?”


What do you mean WHAT WOULD I THINK???? How is that even possible?

A few minutes later he called and explained that it was not only possible, but probable. While he was checking into a loan, the man behind the desk began questioning why we would need a second house. My husband began to explain our prayer meeting with our friends, what we had experienced in trying to minister to a young, single mom recently, and what we thought God might be wanting us to do with this house. So the banker, being a Christian himself, thought it would be fitting to see if the bank would donate a house that had been in foreclosure.

If you have ever been on a ride with God in the driver’s seat, you know when it is time to buckle your seatbelt. So I settled back and **click**.

Within 2 weeks of receiving our first donated house, we formed a steering committee. We quickly began to research exactly what kind of housing might be needed for struggling, single women in our area. How could we help them? Where did we start? What would this look like? People began to show up. Lots of people. And God brought them there. They had information, expertise, missing pieces, and most of all, HOPE.

As the group of interested people grew, so did the vision. It was becoming more and more clear what was needed.

A safe environment.
The ability to live WITH their children.
Time to heal.
Time to focus.
People who would walk across time with them.
Healthy relationships.
A home.

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A BRIDGE from where they are to where they want to be.

God was constructing THE BRIDGE.

And since we thought that one donated house was so cool. He decided, because he is awesome like that, to have another one donated. Only 2 months after the wake up call, we had 2 houses and tons of excited people.

And we have loved every second of this trip with God behind the wheel.