Help the Homeless, So We Can All Feel Good

By | Oct 7, 2013

Feed the WorldA recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, titled “Summer Jobs for the Guilty Generation,” pushes so many do-gooder buttons that I am sure the charity world is fuming. The article basically accuses charities of encouraging poverty and homelessness.

Of course, such a piece fits well within the world view of The Wall Street Journal, where every impoverished person is just too lazy to find a job and all homeless people are just beggars. At least, that’s what the do-gooders think of this business-oriented rag.

Extreme opinions, whether from the left or the right, sell papers and increase television viewership. But sometimes, after sifting through the argumentative noise, there are kernels of truth.

For example, does volunteering at a local homeless shelter actually enable a person who is homeless to not find a job, since food and board are given away for free?

“Of course not!” charities insist. “We are helping them get back on their feet!”

But giving everything away for free does not foster dignity and, frankly, does not always encourage people to work hard.

Like many people, when I was young I was given everything I needed: a roof over my head, three meals a day, the opportunity to educate myself, and a supportive family. But it wasn’t really “free.” I didn’t pay rent or rack up a tab after every meal, but I did have mandatory weekly chores. These chores varied depending on my age. Sometimes I had to mow the lawn, other times I’d clean the windows, dust the furniture, or make sure my room was in order.

Chores were a way for my parents to instill a strong work ethic and a sense of value in my life. In the world of homelessness, we need to make sure we instill similar values in the people we serve.

Years ago, I spoke to a large college group about homelessness. Knowing that this group fed people experiencing homelessness at a public park in the city, I shared with them my perspective on public feeding programs. I told them that such feeding programs, alone, will not end homelessness. In fact, these programs could very well be encouraging homelessness in the city.

They were outraged.

They couldn’t believe that a homeless advocate like me would make such a blasphemous statement. I tried to explain that housing people who are homeless must be the primary focus if we want to end homelessness.

Their responses were simple: If people are hungry, we must feed them. The Bible tells us to feed the hungry. They felt bad seeing homeless people on the streets, and feeding these hungry people made them feel better.

I didn’t want to start an argument, so I changed the subject.

Now, when I talk with groups that want to help people experiencing homelessness by feeding them, I explain that our work to end homelessness is not about us. We should not do this just so that we can feel better about ourselves. We shouldn’t help just so that we can earn our volunteer credits for school, or just so that we can show our children how to be compassionate.

In the world of charity, specifically in terms of ending homelessness, we must keep our eyes on the end goal. The goal is to help each person on the streets get housed and live a life of dignity.

The work we do is about them.

Deterring poverty and homelessness is about changing societal systems that manage homelessness instead of working to end it, and helping those who are already homeless get housed.

Now that makes me feel better.