Two activists in Baltimore work to move people beyond their comfort zones and rethink stereotypes about homelessness.

By Alice Horner

It’s a humid Monday night in downtown Baltimore, but the heat isn’t slowing Greg Gilchrist down. He keeps a towel handy next to his Bible as he preaches to a crowded room at Code Blue Shelter.

Amens ring across the room as he preaches on self-esteem, forgetting excuses and evaluating self-worth based on God’s love, not current circumstances. “Change your point of reference to God; don’t dwell your failures!” he says.

It’s hard to believe that Gilchrist has been doing this for only a year. An ordained Baptist minister, Gilchrist moved from Alabama to Baltimore following what he perceived to be a call from God. “I wanted to find out what in the gospel I could use to change lives,” he said.

For Gilchrist, this is a full-time job without pay. He preaches at three shelters and two drug treatment centers each week and makes a living on donations from friends.

Gilchrest says he ignored the call to Baltimore for years, spending time in Alabama to publish two books. Last August, a tornado ripped through his town and destroyed his home, bringing him back to square one.

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Gilchrist up and moved to Baltimore. He finds it difficult to measure the impact that decision had. “Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d gotten swallowed up in self-pity. Where would I be now? But because I decided to obey, I lost myself to the love of God.”

He finds immense inspiration in the biblical story of Zacchaeus, the hated tax collector whom Jesus befriends, much to the dismay of the community. “I began to sense a strong compassion for the outcast, the downtrodden,” he said.

“I began to have an impression that society is like a human body,” he explained. “If we cut off circulation to any part of the body, it will die. I saw the homeless, the disenfranchised, as a part of the body that the lifeline has been cut off from. It affects us all.”

With his ministry, Gilchrist believes he is changing the lens through which society views the homeless. “We are changing the face of homelessness,” he said.

Across town, also changing the face of homelessness is Jesse McDermit, community outreach coordinator with Project PLASE, People Lacking Ample Shelter and Employment, a nonprofit organization that has helped thousands of homeless with housing and counseling for almost 40 years.

“I’m a big believer in unlocking human potential,” McDermit says. “My goal is to raise awareness, and that’s the first step of the battle.”

He has spent his year reaching out to the Baltimore community, including a major effort to raise support for turning an old school building into a set of transitional apartments and counseling services. Yet expanding housing services for the homeless carries with it a stigma, one that McDermit has been working to change all year.

Both Gilchrist and McDermit acknowledge that the root of the problem is fear. “People are afraid to reach out to other people who don’t look the same, or even smell the same,” said Gilchrist.

This fear of difference has spread into churches themselves, said Gilchrist, who believes that not enough churches reach out where they should. “The church has lost the initial commission from Jesus. How long are you going to haul water to the ocean?”

McDermit believes that seeing a homeless person reminds people of their own humanity. “It’s uncomfortable to face this reality that people have been marginalized in society,” he said. “It’s most uncomfortable because you know it could happen to you, or your mother or your son.”

In addition, McDermit believes it’s time to stop blaming others for bad decisions made years ago. “It’s easier to say ‘this isn’t my problem.’ But at what point do we stop holding people accountable for a choice someone made when they were 15? To realize how connected we all are is really difficult to do,” he said.

Getting out of comfort zones is one step towards solving the problem. Breaking down stereotypes is another. As part of his work with PLASE, McDermit is organizing a night of monologues by people who have diverse stories of their own homelessness. Not only do these stories break down the stereotypes of homelessness portrayed in the media, but they make the problem more real.

“Homelessness is not an abstract social problem,” McDermit said. “It’s really empowering to have a group of people listen to real stories. They’re touched and they’re called to action.”

Any social problem, whether it’s the AIDS epidemic or poverty, tends to flatten out a population into one stereotype, said McDermit. Bringing awareness is necessary because “the face of homelessness has changed drastically over the last 30 years,” he said.