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The Four Stages of Moving from Human Suffering to Human Flourishing

At the Mission, we believe every person should have what they need to thrive — not just survive. To us, that means going beyond meeting physical needs to help people truly move forward in their lives and find stability and fulfillment. In a recent interview with John Ashman of Citygate Network on the Real Hope podcast, we talked about the journey of moving from human suffering to human flourishing.

John believes there are four stages to that process:

  1. Humanitarian aid – providing basic needs like food, clean water, medical care
  2. Disaster relief – providing shelter and resources after a natural disaster
  3. Community development – investing in a community from the inside out, coming alongside families, building up structures and systems that provide ongoing resources and help sustain a healthy community
  4. Life transformation – a personal journey from human suffering to human flourishing that includes all aspects of a person’s life (physical needs, career, relationships, etc.)

The necessary order of this journey reminds me of trying to help someone who has a deep physical wound. If someone is lying on the ground bleeding, we wouldn’t approach them and start talking about how injuries like this happen and how we can prevent it in the future. We would try to stop the bleeding. To me, that’s kind of like humanitarian aid and disaster relief. We have to meet the most urgent, most essential needs before we do anything else. People need food, water, safety and shelter before we can talk to them about career paths. 

After we’ve addressed the immediate medical needs, we could move on to healing and preventing the same injury from happening again to that person or others. (That’s actually kind of like community development — structures and procedures to prevent the same harm and support success). Finally, we can pursue true human flourishing. But we can’t skip straight to life transformation without going through the first three steps.

Rescue vs. Life Transformation

Additionally, we’re doing people a disservice if we only engage in steps one and two — aid and relief. John and I discussed true life transformation as a journey. It’s not a quick fix, but if you invest in the journey, you impact that person for the rest of their lives, and perhaps even the next generations in their family. If we only provide humanitarian aid and disaster relief, we never come alongside the people we’re trying to help and empower them to thrive. It’s a bandaid — a temporary solution that will inevitably require repeating.

I believe all people are capable of human flourishing, whether they’re addicted, homeless, struggling with their mental health, recovering from time spent in jail or simply feel lost. But everyone needs support, and for those of us who want to help people thrive, we’ve got to provide support in the right order to unlock life transformation.

In our conversation, John observed that many helping organizations have the word “rescue” in their names — ours included! The reason Citygate Network does not is because he wants the organization to be about more than the initial “rescuing.” He wants it to be about the entire journey. 

“So many missions in America were rescuing people and treating them like they were rescuing them from a disaster — putting them on a cot, giving them food and blankets and clothing and doing it over and over again,” he explains. “When we keep talking about ‘rescue,’ that just says we’re about the beginning.”

To be clear, John included Nashville Rescue Mission as an organization that is involved in true life transformation, but his point was powerful. If we want to change lives, we have to focus our attention on the entire journey, not just the beginning. John paints a picture of how this process could look if he were homeless and suffering:

“Life transformation says, ‘I’m under a bridge tonight, it’s gonna be freezing, I haven’t eaten in two days and those guys who want my shoes know where I’m sleeping. Wait a minute, there’s the mission van and I can go to the mission — I’m safe tonight, but what good is that, because I’m addicted?’ Now you learn the mission can help you with your addiction. ‘But what good is that, because I don’t know anything?’ Now you learn the mission can help with your education. ‘Ok, but I don’t have any skills.’ Now you learn the mission can help you in a career path. ‘But even if I get a good job, I don’t want to be working homeless.’ Now you learn the mission can help you get a home and learn how to keep a home and get connected into a community. It’s not a quick journey, but it’s life transformation.”

Zooming Out 

Aid and disaster relief are important, but they don’t address the root causes of homelessness, and they can’t be effective strategies for ending homelessness or poverty. If the answer to homelessness were simply “give them a home,” the numbers would be decreasing. According to a recent report and strategic plan from the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH), this “housing first” approach is not successful long-term.

“The federal government’s policy shift in 2013 to prioritizing housing first as a one-size-fits-all approach has not worked to reduce homelessness for all populations and communities,” the report states. “In just five years, unsheltered homelessness increased 20.5 percent from 175,399 in 2014 to 211,293 in 2019. Simultaneously, the number of year-round beds available to serve persons experiencing homelessness through subsidized Rapid Rehousing and Permanent Supportive Housing rose from 338,065 to 482,254, a 42.7 percent increase in five years.”

The report also says that “federal funding for targeted homelessness assistance has increased every year in the last decade, resulting in being more than 200 percent of what it was a decade ago. However, from 2014 to 2019, people experiencing unsheltered homelessness increased by 20.5 percent nationally.”

Statistics like these clearly show that a lack of government funding and a lack of available housing are not necessarily the main obstacles in decreasing homelessness. 

The USICH is suggesting that as a country we have to think bigger — zoom out a little more and figure out what the systemic problems are and how we can provide resources or change policies to prevent future homelessness and help the current homeless population heal and move forward. The council’s plan advocates for the dignity of work, affordable construction (and therefore more affordable housing), mental health and trauma-informed care, national emergency preparedness and other large-scale shifts.

More than a Roof

To truly decrease the number of people experiencing homelessness or poverty, we have to ask “why?” What are the reasons for the increasing homeless community, whether nationally, regionally or individually? And what circumstances would need to change or what resources would need to be available for them to thrive? Organizations that are about life transformation are asking those questions.

Most people experiencing homelessness have experienced deep trauma, not only from being homeless but from other life experiences as well. In addition to advocating for policy changes and programs that address root issues, organizations focused on life transformation have to do what we can on a micro-level to walk alongside people experiencing homelessness beyond simply meeting physical needs. We have to be proactive, helping them find healing from trauma, acquire the life and career skills they need to succeed and discover a place to belong. 

A warm meal and a roof over someone’s head are valuable and needed, but if we stop there, we’ll never help people go from human suffering to human flourishing. Let’s continue to build relationships on a small scale, change what isn’t working on a large scale and work together to end homelessness.

Hear Glenn’s conversation with John Ashmen in this month’s episode of Real Hope. Listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.