Thinking outside the box
has been writing for Speak Up since 2015. Over the years, his work has spanned a broad range: personal dispatches from among the homeless community, thoughtful creative writing, and opinion pieces like this one designed to mobilize action.
He now also writes at —which is part of the Speak Up Network, standalone publications from writers who started on Speak Up but have now launched separate endeavors. Read it and subscribe!
A man and a boy were walking along the beach. They noticed starfish washing up with the waves as the tide receded. The little boy started throwing the starfish back into the ocean, trying to save as many as he could while keeping up with the man. The man stopped and asked the boy what difference he could make with all the starfish. Confused, the boy thought for a moment, picked up a starfish, and returned it to the ocean, saying that it made a difference to that one. Inspired, both the man and the boy started saving more starfish.
This story illustrates a simple point: Homelessness has become an epidemic – if not a pandemic – throughout the nation. Affordable housing is lacking, and even low-income and senior housing often leaves individuals struggling to survive on only two-thirds of their income. It's a huge problem, and many think they can't do anything to solve it because there are too many homeless people.
Perhaps you see them standing alongside the road holding signs or begging on the sidewalk. Probably you've seen reports from once-thriving cities like San Francisco that have been decimated by an explosion of homelessness. It is running rampant.
Here's how we naturally respond to that: "Okay, point taken, but Bill, what can I do? You just said it's out of control. I can't solve homelessness; it's too huge a problem. There are just so, so many homeless."
But remember the starfish. The little boy couldn't save all of them, but he made a difference for each one he saved. Similarly, while we may not be able to solve homelessness completely, we can help individuals or families one at a time. Organizations like Speak Up and Habitat for Humanity are doing great work, but they always need more help. And you don't need an organization to give you permission to radically bless someone! If you have the means, consider offering a spare room, an empty trailer, or a garage apartment. Think about what you can do to assist someone doing all they can to fight their own battle.
Churches everywhere, with their members and resources, can make a significant impact. Sometimes they aim too big and end up getting bogged down in complexity, and their impact is diluted. So what if they made it their mission to help just one individual in need? Just one. Even that wouldn't be easy, but then again, doing the right thing often isn't. We all share a common humanity. Why not directly offer someone a job and a home, in addition to supporting charities? We may not solve homelessness as a whole, but we can make a difference for one person.
Let me leave you with an analogy. I collect boxes, particularly cigar boxes, also empty wine boxes, assorted others. I buy these boxes because I like how the outside of the box looks: different polished wood or rustic, well-used designs, and written flourishes. I admire their interiors, but I know that the real value lies outside the box.
In the same way, we need to break free from our own limitations and think creatively about those those who need help. Let’s buck conventional wisdom! Only by continuously making the effort to think outside our own boxes can we truly make the difference we are called to make.