Imagine that your company downsizes and has to let you go. Like half of Americans, you don’t even have enough savings to cover your expenses for three months, so you spend a couple of weeks sleeping on your friend’s couch, until the awkwardness of imposition kicks in and you have to leave.
Then you end up sitting in a cramped office across from a homeless shelter intake worker while she grills you about why you became homeless in the first place. She asks the usual demographic questions—age, how long you have been homeless, illnesses, etc.
Then, with her hair a bit frazzled and glasses sitting crooked on her nose, the intake worker looks up from her clipboard and asks, “So… have you been naughty or nice this year?”
“Excuse me?” you respond.
“Have you been naughty or nice?” she asks, as if it is a standard query.
“I don’t understand,” you say. “What does that have to do with whether or not I can get into your shelter?”
The woman takes off her glasses, a little irritated. Her smile is definitely forced.
“It’s very simple,” she says. “We only allow nice people who have behaved well to sleep in our shelters. It’s standard procedure.”
You feel like you are either years old again, sitting on Santa’s lap while the big, bearded man asks you if you were naughty or nice this year. Your future happiness depends on your answer.
Today, it looks like you will be joining the thousands of people who will be sleeping under an outdoor tree this holiday season.
I wonder how many of us think like that intake worker when we write checks to our favorite charity or volunteer at the local homeless shelter?
Do I want my $100 check go toward helping some dead-beat dad who abandoned his wife and kids so he can live worry-free on the streets? Or how about the woman who is addicted to drugs and alcohol, and would rather be high than live a responsible, sober life?
It is certainly tempting to check off that “naughty” box and keep them cut off from your compassion.
Helping “nice” people is so much better. That sick child with his sad eyes. The poor mother who was abandoned by her abusive husband. That hardworking teen whose family is homeless, but still earns straight A’s at school. These are the kinds of people we think deserve our credit card donations.
If we’re going to build a home for a needy family, we want them to invest their own sweat equity into it by pounding nails themselves. If that person living in the homeless shelter wants to stay, let him perform chores or volunteer for the agency so that he “earns” that bed.
At the very least, shouldn’t the people we help have cheerful attitudes, bright smiles, and good work ethics? Shouldn’t they be submitting to employment applications and visiting their case managers every day?
But, if we decide to operate like Santa Claus, what do we do with the “naughty” people? Do we deny them food, shelter, and housing?
I am certain homelessness would increase if this was our approach to compassion. There are probably more “naughty” people than “nice.” And who has the credentials to judge who is naughty or nice anyway? He might be a deadbeat dad, but I download music and movies illegally. She could be a drug addict, but he cheats on his taxes. Don’t we all have our sins?
What if we just help everyone whether they are naughty or nice? The gift of compassion should be unconditional.
If housing is a right, then it should be a right for everyone.