Many of us on Twitter know Kevin Nye as the housing advocate, a social worker who has firsthand experience with what does and does not help those experiencing homelessness. He regularly reminds us to see others not as projects, but as God’s image bearers worthy of dignity.
When Kevin announced he needed people to join the launch team for his new book, Grace Can Lead Us Home: A Christian Call to End Homelessness, I asked to join with a bit of trepidation. I had a feeling this book would challenge my views and attitudes—it would make me uncomfortable, in the best sense of the word.
And I was right. Nye’s book offers a stark picture of the reality of our society’s efforts (or lack thereof) to address homelessness. He reveals our own preconceived ideas of who is worthy of help, rather than how God offers all of us grace. And yet, even with such a challenging message, he brings a sense of hope to his work. I came away feeling not downtrodden, but excited for what’s possible.
That’s why I asked to interview Kevin over Zoom this summer. We shared stories about our pandemic-born toddlers, talked about the best Spider-Man film (Into the Spider-Verse), and discussed ways we keep hope alive in dark times. I’m thrilled to share a bit of the conversation with you here.
Hannah Comerford: So, first off, why did you decide on writing a book? You could have focused on a podcast or started your own political campaign or made a documentary with some friends. Why did you choose to write a book?
Kevin Nye: I'm a writer. When I was in seminary, I loved writing papers, and I even loved writing sermons. And I got so much anxiety preaching sermons. For a while, my dream would have been to be the ghostwriter of a more charming and engaging speaker.
I've always written, I've always loved writing. In many ways I wanted to write a book before I decided on this book. Once I felt I had something interesting to say, it was obvious. It’s like, “Oh, well, obviously I have to write a book.”
And what brought you to the conclusion that this book is what you needed to write?
When I first started out in the field, I thought, “Maybe one day this is what I'll write a book about.” And after about three or four years, I'd accumulated knowledge and experienced a lot of stories, some of which I had written down because I knew or suspected that they might become part of something bigger later.
But really [I landed on the idea] once I got the thesis, which came to me because I was thinking about how much the word home shows up in Christian language, in the Bible, in Scripture, when we talk about a heavenly home, etc. I was either singing or just thinking about the lyrics of “Amazing Grace” and the lyric “’tis grace that brought me safe thus far / and grace will lead me home,” and just reflecting on that, applying that understanding of home, and putting that in conversation with homelessness—and that's when it kind of all clicked into place for me, that the whole thing was about grace.
And so, I like to tell people that the title happened immediately. It went through a couple of versions, like “Grace Will Lead Me Home,” “Grace Can Lead Me Home.” There's a lot of different iterations that I thought through until the final one, but it was always something like that.
So if you could boil your book down to its thesis, what would that be?
I feel like I should probably have the book memorized by this point, with how much editing I did and then recording the audiobook. But I don't. So every time I get asked, I say it a little bit differently, which I guess is good so the interviews aren't all the same.
But yeah, to me, grace is the notion that we don't get what we deserve. We get what God chooses to give us, and what God chooses to give us is love, acceptance, unconditional favor, good gifts. And if God gives us those things, regardless of whether we deserve it, we're called to do the same.
And yet so much of our economic, political, and religious beliefs about poverty and about homelessness boil down to what we think certain people deserve or don't deserve. And so, as Christians, we have to have a different conversation than what we’re having.
Why did you focus on Christians and the church and not a secular audience?
I mean, a couple of reasons: I think one, like in a practical sense, like five years’ experience with no degree in the subject matter doesn't exactly make me the type of expert to speak on this issue on a broad academic sense, which if I didn't have the angle of writing it and putting it in conversation with faith, that's what the book would have to be, I think. And also that book exists. There's several good versions of that book, and a lot of them I used to write the one I wrote.
I am more of an academic and life-experience expert in Christianity, faith. And that book didn't exist. And it's also just in terms of me as the author bringing all of me to the book, not just a part of me.
For those who haven't read your book yet, homelessness can feel like such an overwhelming issue. And even as I read it, there were times when it felt very hopeless—like, “Well, the whole system is set up against us, there's nothing we can do.”
How do you personally overcome that hopelessness? And how do you give others hope?
I find that I spend a lot of days and a lot of parts of many days feeling helpless, too, wanting to give up, and feeling not even that I want to give up, but that not giving up is just as futile as giving up.
When I do find that I am becoming really disenchanted and really hopeless, the way I overcome it is I get back to spending time with the people who are experiencing [homelessness], because they will give you hope—and not in a paternalistic sense, where you see how distraught they are, and so you get the courage to show up for them. Actually, it's the opposite: people experiencing homelessness are some of the most hopeful and resilient and amazing people I've ever met. And when you actually spend time with them, you kind of can't help but catch a little bit of that hope.
And it also brings the issue down to more of a micro level in a way. I can think all day about how many affordable housing units we are away from meeting the demand and how daunting that is, and at the same time, I can help be a part of ending the homelessness of one person or one family, you know, and that helps reengage and re-instill hope.
What do you tell people when they say that they want to get started in being a part of the solution?
I would say get involved in a micro way. And for some it's volunteering at an organization. I think there's a lot of good organizations and a lot of not-so-good organizations, and it does matter. But honestly, one of the best things that people can do, within good boundaries and safe contexts, is just get to know the people who are experiencing homelessness in your immediate geography. Whether that's the person you often see on the way to work, maybe by your work, maybe by where you live, at the bus stop. Just start by taking some cash or a water bottle or something and just asking their name and seeing where it goes from there.
I don't think that every Christian is called to invite unhoused people into their spare bedroom, necessarily. But I do think that being in solidarity and in some form of relationship with the people who are experiencing homelessness, who are our literal neighbors, is absolutely a part of the Christian calling.
You talk frequently about recognizing the inherent dignity of our unhoused neighbors. Can you speak a little bit about how we as Christians, activists, or volunteers—or even as artists or writers—have ignored that dignity? And how might we honor it?
It comes from both sides. . . . There's the more typical version of, you know, betraying someone's dignity: “This person is dirty, they're disgusting, they're less than human. They don't deserve help. They just need to get their stuff together.” They're labeled with things like, “They're an addict. They're a druggie. They're crazy.” They're all these sorts of horrible nouns.
That's becoming less common. And what's often replacing it is something that is just as dehumanizing and undignifying. And that's the belief that people who are experiencing homelessness aren't the experts of their own experience, and they can't be trusted to determine what it is that they want.
And you see this a lot from more progressive people and especially more progressive politicians, this idea that people don't want help, that we designed these services to “help people and they don't take them,” and we blame them for that. And I think that that's an extremely problematic way of approaching this issue from a more progressive lens.
It, again, is this paternalistic idea that “I know what's good for you. Why don't you just take what I'm telling you is good for you?” And again, humanity is lost in that process.
So how do we do the reverse of that? How do we honor that dignity?
Again, it happens in relationship, in community. It happens by asking people what it is they want and believing them and honoring what they say that they need with our actions, with our response. It means involving people experiencing homelessness and people who formerly experienced homelessness in policymaking around homelessness, in the design of ministries and programs and services.
How do you get people to care? How do you talk to people who are coming at this issue with some of those biases you mentioned and help them see the importance of human dignity?
I'm banking a lot of how I wrote this book on the fact that people do care. I hope I'm right, but my belief in how I wrote this book was that people on several different sides of this issue genuinely do care. They genuinely do see homelessness and say, “This should not be.” What happens after that is crucial. But at least I do think most of us are starting from that place now.
How we think people came to be that way, what we think the causes are, what we think we should ask of people—those are all different. And that's where the education piece of my book is really important. But I do think that people see homelessness and think that it shouldn't be that way. And after that, we just have to ask the right questions.
Yeah. I think that was more hopeful than then I expected.
You maybe caught me on a good day.
I'm not all that hopeful these days because I'm seeing so much criminalization. The state of Tennessee and where I left in LA have only gotten worse since I left. You know, here in Minneapolis, the closest encampment to me just got completely decimated. It's getting worse right now. And it's not because people don't care. It's because we only care to an extent, and we give up before we give the real solutions a chance.
I think we really failed to realize and have the patience to recognize that these issues are decades in the making. In Los Angeles especially, you can chart the history of how homelessness took shape, how it expanded from one neighborhood to the next. And you can really paint a clear history and recognize that it was a fifty-year journey and policy failure to get to where we are. And then we sort of hope that there is a one-year solution to it, and that's just not feasible.
I don't want to say that the solutions are impossible, but they are going to take time and patience to work on it on a grand scale.
I really love this quote in the section about your friend Martín, who was addicted to crystal meth:
The idea that it “could have been me” is rooted in the myth that we all start from the same place and are products only of the choices we make along the way. In this case, that myth glorifies me and resents Martín for things that were well outside either of our control.
I found that really powerful. I related to the anecdote not only because I was also born in August of 1989, like you and Martín, but also because I have thought, “It could have been me.” And so that really struck me hard.
Is there anything you’d like to add to this? Have you talked about that with others or had that conversation before?
It's a fine line to walk, because in some ways I do want most people I talk to, to recognize that pretty much everyone I know is a lot closer to experiencing homelessness than they are to being a billionaire. And yet we are trained in our upbringing, in our capitalist society, to always imagine that we're on a trajectory toward success and wealth.
That's always the direction that we're facing. The Dave Ramseys of the world always want us looking that way: “Look, look at this thing that you could have. Don't look behind you and see how close you are to this instead. Because if you turn around and see them, you're going to become like them.”
Read Kevin Nye's article, "The doctors walked right past him."
And so in one sense, like when I'm talking to you or to others, I want to be like, “Hey, actually, this could be us.” But in a lot of ways, it can't be. You know, we have to be really honest about that one, in the same way that those of us who are white are being called to account about understanding white privilege.
So, I do want people to know we are closer to being unhoused than we are to being permanently stable in housing because of the way the economy is rigged. And at the same time, especially when we're talking about substance use and mental illness, the risk factors for those things do truly touch certain people far more than others. I think I mentioned in the book how in middle school, even if I had wanted to purchase crystal meth, I wouldn't have known how. For Martín, it was happening in his home.
I think it's so important for us to recognize that certain people are predisposed to homelessness, to the extent that some [UCLA] researchers have started to predict homelessness based on risk factors. They got to the point where they created a list of people’s names who they said, “We predict these people are likely to become homeless in the next five years,” and launched a pilot program where they would call them and give them money, just to see if we can target it that specifically, and then maybe we can prevent it through an algorithm that is taking into account all of these factors.
And there's a story I was thinking about today that in my early imaginings of the book was going to be in there and didn't end up making it in. But it’s one of the first people I ever got into relationship with who was experiencing homelessness, when I was in Oklahoma City working at that ministry. He went to jail, and I went to look him up to see where he was being incarcerated so then maybe I could visit him. And when I looked him up, there were two entries, and I realized that the one I was looking for was [his name] Jr., and there was an entry in there for [the same name] Sr. And when I looked up the crimes the senior had been charged with, it just struck me how this was his father and this is what he grew up around.
What chance did he have to have a different kind of life, you know?
So how do you respond when someone hears stories like that, and then their response is, “Well, so-and-so was able to rise out of it” or “So and so was able to work hard and now is in a better place”?
I think the reason that we hear about their stories is because they're exceptions, and the data just doesn't support that being the case.
In that same chapter I talk about Ben and his story. Ben up and quit his addictions at the spur of the moment. We lift up those stories even though they're so rare, and we hold them as aspirational instead of like, miracles, you know, or exceptions to the rule. We're so good at doing that. So many books and stories about particular people escaping poverty, even if it's not the author's intention or the storyteller's intention, we turn into, like, “Go see, it is [this way].”
Yeah, that's a good point. That’s a very good point.
The theme of this issue is Pursuit. In that vein, what are the best ways that our readers might pursue human flourishing?
I think just by recognizing that if grace is true, then everybody gets to flourish, and also flourishing looks like more than survival. That's a big theme I end the book with.
People experiencing homelessness deserve homes. They deserve enough food to eat. They deserve all these basic human necessities, but they also deserve parties and avocado toast and joy.
And that, I think, kind of comes back to your question about staying hopeful.
A lot of people who are involved with the Black Lives Matter movement really highlight this . . . the joy. Joy is part of the resistance, and celebration is part of the resistance. And I think that's true for anyone who works in situations that feel hopeless. You can dedicate a lot of your time to tackling injustice, and you can get so caught up in fighting the fight that you forget what we're fighting for.
And if we're fighting for flourishing, then we need to take time to flourish . . . to build flourishing into the daily routine.
Yeah. And I think that applies even farther than in this specific instance.
Growing up in that American Protestant mindset of “you need to work to deserve everything” makes me feel like, “Oh, I just spent $5 on a gnome for my front porch. I didn't need that. Was that wrong?” Or I might think, “I lent some money to a friend. Was it wrong for her to spend some of it on something that she didn't specifically need?”
So yeah, I think your book really helped me rethink this and realize everyone deserves that joy, everyone deserves that chance to be happy and to celebrate.
Yeah, it makes me think of the story where, depending on which Gospel you read, the woman pours the oil on Jesus’s head or his feet. And the disciples are like, “No, we should have sold that and given the money to the poor.” And that's also the story where “the poor you will always have with you” comes from.
The point I make in my book about that story is that obviously Jesus is not saying the poor are always going to be with you. I think there's another dimension . . . how that was just an expression in the moment of joy that to some could look like frivolity. But, you know, it was actually flourishing.
Cover image by Matt Collamer.