As we enter this season of Thanksgiving baskets and Christmas presents; bell-ringers and heart-string pullers; card-board sign displayers and more rain and cold nights under a tarp or park bench, what does true help to the homeless look like?
An article in this publication recently recounted the now-over-year-long experiment in Albuquerque whereby the homeless are hired to pick up litter. So successful has been the effort that cities across America have inquired as to the details. One of the commenters to the article however was concerned about liability.
The Director of Constituent Services in Mayor Berry’s Office in Albuquerque was asked by the Mayor to respond:
“St. Martin’s Hospitality Center is the homeless provider that manages the grant money for ‘There’s A Better Way.’ There has not been any issue with the program. However, if and when a liability issue occurs, St. Martin’s insurance would cover it.”
Is Albuquerque’s “There’s A Better Way” a better way?
The Germans have a saying “Hunger makes raw beans sweet” and the Portuguese: “Brackish water is sweet in a dry land.”
Two observations. One, raw beans and brackish water are not ideal. Two, to those who are really hungry and thirsty, raw beans and brackish water in a dry land are sweet indeed.
The point? How desperate are the homeless to receive the help they need, though it may not be the help they want? How anguished, how hungry, how willing?
A true story by way of example that took place one beautiful autumn afternoon like this a number of years ago. A fellow passing by asked if I’d any money.
“No, but I’ve a job that pays money.”
“Five dollars an hour.”
“What’s the job?”
And so we began.
Twenty minutes later, he asked how much he’d earned.
Doing the math: “1.66.”
The smallest denominations I had were two one-dollar bills. He took them and left.
There’s another half – the first half – to a similar proverb as those mentioned above that needs to be mentioned here: “A full soul loathes a honeycomb.” Other versions replace “loathes” with “tramples upon.”
In other words here referenced is one who has so much that he really cares very little for that which could mean so much for someone who has hardly anything at all.
Again, a couple observations.
Is it because we are so well off that we feel inconvenienced by those who have so little?
Are the indulgent as indolent as the indigent?
A former guest columnist for the Tacoma News Tribune recently opined there the “achingly simple cure for homelessness: a home.”
He wrote, “I still can’t adjust to the presence of individuals camped out in doorways, parks, alleys and libraries. This is not a natural phenomenon. This is a living expression of social neglect, cowardice and incompetence on a massive scale.
“There is no reason — and no excuse — for semi-permanent, all-ages homelessness. But too many of us are comfortable with it as long at it doesn’t hit too close to home.
“As long as it is other people — people we don’t know — anonymous and disheveled, hidden in the forlorn corners of our city, we don’t really care.”
So far, so good. Or bad, if we’re the ones being described. But is what follows in fact the remedy?
“The solution is actually very simple: They need what we all need — a place to call home.”
But what if, instead of housing, the haves and the have-nots should meet in the street, roll up their sleeves, and have it out? Not fisticuffs but rather the haves providing the wherewithal to see if in fact the have-nots have the wherewithal.
Which is to say, how ‘bout those with ample salary, a retirement plan, a life and health insurance policy, two cars, and, possibly, living in a gated community – meeting half-way the have-nots to address their emergency.
Emphasis upon ‘emergency’.
In “When Helping Hurts,” subtitled “How to alleviate poverty without hurting the poor . . . and yourself,” authors Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert suggest that in most cases unless the help offered is “to stop the bleeding,” i.e. an actual emergency, we do more harm than good.
“If a person can help himself then a pure handout is almost never appropriate, as it undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities” (p.106).
Handouts from the haves to the have-nots are hardly ever, as in most cases probably never, appropriate unless we’re talking dire straits. Paying for someone’s utility bill, rent, food, or transportation needs, or digging in your wallet before the light changes at the intersection for the fellow with the cardboard sign – should be crisis-oriented only and determining that takes more time than a stop light provides.
At the risk of appearing heartless, the homeless have capacities, skills, and abilities all demonstrable when two legs, two arms and a reasonably strong enough back are applied to their situation.
“It is paternalistic to do for people what they can do for themselves.”
So important is our grasp of this that Corbett and Fikkert write, “Memorize this, recite it under your breath all day long, and wear it around your neck. Every time you are engaged in poverty alleviation, keep this at the forefront of your mind, for it can keep you from doing all sorts of harm” (p.115).
Treat the homeless with the respect they deserve but expect that they’ll do the same for themselves.