Enabling vs. Empowering: Is Compassion Old School?

By | Apr 21, 2014

lost keysI sometimes think our interpretation of the story of the Good Samaritan in the Bible hinders our efforts to end homelessness.

This is the story of a guy—a Samaritan—who comes across a seriously injured man from an enemy tribe lying by the road, nearly dead. Instead of leaving him there to die, the Samaritan takes him in and nurses him back to health.

His compassion has been a role model for millions of people ever since. Compassionate people around the world go to their hurting neighbors, including our neighbors living on the streets, to provide food and clothing.

Isn’t that what we are supposed to do? When we see a hungry person, should we not feed him? Of course we should. That is the Good Samaritan’s response to a world filled with hurting people.

But if we are still feeding the same hungry person years later, there is a problem. Our compassion has created dependency. Instead of empowering a person, we become enablers.

The age-old adage about giving someone a fishing pole rather than a fish still holds true. Nowadays, however, the fishing pole is a little outmoded. Today, rather than giving someone a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at a public feeding program, we should be teaching them computer skills.

I tend to discount people who are proud of being “homeless enablers,” even if their compassion is genuine and their intentions seem heroic.

Helping people off the streets and into homes is all about providing dignity. Sleeping on the streets is degrading. Sleeping in your own apartment, away from the threat of violence and the elements, fosters a sense of safety and self-worth.

Does that mean we should criminalize homelessness by ticketing people who have nowhere else to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom? Of course not.

But putting all of our energy, resources, and efforts into giving people experiencing homelessness the right to pitch a tent on the sidewalk, eat in crowded soup kitchens, and use the gutter and alleyways as their toilet is not a dignified, nor compassionate, solution.

Should we let people pitch a tent anywhere in our city? Should we let faith groups feed people out of their vans, usually in the most impoverished parts of town? Should we buy $250,000 automated toilets for people living on the streets?

In other words, should we make it easier for people to live on the streets?

Or, instead, should we force society to give every person the right to a permanent roof over their head, nutritious meals, and health care?

I would rather give a person the right to housing, and a higher quality of life, than the right to survive on the streets.

Housing is more dignified. Helping someone move off the streets and into a home is true compassion. Today’s Good Samaritans should operate less as “homeless enablers,” and more as “homeless housers.”


  1. Posted Jun 16, 2014 at 4:53 pm | Permalink

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