Aerial View of Colorado Springs at Dusk
Aerial View of Colorado Springs at Dusk
Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

Motivations to Change


I made short visits to nine homelessness sites on my Texas-Oklahoma-Kansas-Colorado trip in August. I wrote earlier this fall about the four days I lived at a homeless shelter in California, and will write in January and February about the ten days I lived recently at two homeless shelters in Missouri. But I’ve already seen enough to come to one conclusion: a good shelter recognizes the trauma that often underlies homelessness, the compounding of that trauma by homelessness itself, and the need for a step-by-step process of overcoming.

Recognizing the trauma means not insisting on too much too soon, but providing incentives to go beyond thinking about how to get the next meal and the next night’s sleep. Most of the ninety homeless or recently-homeless people I’ve interviewed in recent months had short time horizons: the technical term might be “lacks executive function.” Envisioning where they want to be in five years doesn’t motivate them, but immediate benefits — food, the same bed — do.   

That’s a sensibility Springs Rescue Mission staffers, led by former Air Force major general Jack Briggs, understand. The last stop on my August trip was in Colorado Springs, where Briggs introduces himself to people walking into his mission off the streets: “I’m Jack. What’s your name?”  Briggs explains that sharing a name lowers tension:  He’s an official and others are homeless, but they’re equal in humanity. (First names, not last names: He says “many people on the street won’t go to shelters. They’re running from spouses or law — don’t want anyone to know where they are.”)

Briggs says everything at Springs is designed to build trust. Many homeless people “live in a world where no one keeps a promise,” so residents at Springs hand over clothes to be washed — and they get them back. With a wry, Tommie Lee Jones grin, Briggs says the rules are simple: “Don’t fight. Don’t call the staff names. You can’t use or sell [drugs] while you’re here.” Residents who do that minimum can get food, a bed, and safety for a night. No one has to live by pretense or make a profession of faith in order to get the basics.

But here’s what’s key: If residents want to get the same bed every night and better meals, they have to do something in return. That something can be a course to prepare themselves for work, or a Bible class that will prepare them for a different and better life. They are not required to change, but they have incentives to open themselves up to the possibility of change.

For example, Springs Rescue Mission resident Mickey Hood, 54, told me in August that she was tired of sleeping in a different homeless shelter bed every night so she entered the mission’s Hope program for “better food, a bed I could call mine, [and] it’s safe here.” Lance Leavitt, 57, a talented high school catcher whose baseball hopes ended long ago when a car accident sent him through his front windshield, was also in the Hope program: “a better breakfast, and I can leave my stuff during the day.”

Those individuals and others have backstories. Leavitt’s terrible accident came a decade after a terrible fire when he, at age eight, was babysitting his two younger brothers and one put a blanket on a space heater. Leavitt tried to put it out with a broom, but the whole house burned down and his dad blamed him: “That set me up for failure.” Following the accident at age 18 he didn’t walk for a year, became a pill addict, went from job to job, and then for two decades fell into heroin. Now he’s working, learning, and acknowledging “the wrong choices” he made. I’ll have more to say about Springs next year: Briggs and others have just published a book, Meeting Homelessness with Hope, that explains the who, what, when, where, why, and how of their work. But I’ve learned so far that running a shelter requires wisdom of the kind found in the Bible’s book of Proverbs, which emphasizes the need for discernment rather than universally-applicable rules. Homeless shelters go wrong when they require either too much or too little. Many among the homeless are looking for one step up: getting enough to eat, or knowing they won’t be assaulted. Then the next step can come.  

Marvin Olasky

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Marvin Olasky is a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute and its Center for Science and Culture. He taught at The University of Texas at Austin from 1983 to 2008 and edited WORLD magazine from 1992 through 2021. He is the author of 28 books including Fighting for Liberty and Virtue and The Tragedy of American Compassion.