Survival Guide to Homelessness

No matter where you go, there you are.

Monday, November 29, 2004

Sweet Charity

I am not a beggar. I don't have any experience at begging. I do know that begging is an unpleasant profession, and the vast majority of beggars really do need some kind of help. The stories of con men begging are just that, stories. Those stories are there to comfort people as they turn their hearts away from those in need. In this way they are similar to the condemnation stories, which claim that a beggar will use what he receives for unworthy purposes, like alcohol or drugs. Let me just say this about that, a long-term alcoholic that has not had a drink cannot hold down food. It is arrogant and unkind to presume that we know what others need.

There's a story about a man who served in the Peace Corps. He was working with a small agricultural village, without much in the way of resources. After telling his father about the people he was working with, his father generously offered him $10,000 to build a school with. The man, wisely, said he needed to talk to the people about it, and when he did, he found they didn't want a school.

The people said a school wouldn't do them very much good. The children are needed to do work at home and would not have much time to use a school. Instead, if given ten thousand dollars, they would like to have a well, so that the children didn't have to carry water from miles away, and they would like to have a soccer field, a place for the kids to play and for families to gather.

If you give to those in need, I suggest that you give, and then give no further thought to the gift. Give thought to those you wish to help. Give them compassion. Don't try to be certain that the gift is used as you intended. In fact, try not to intend.

People know how to get the most from the money you give them. If you try to direct how those resources are used, it may be of little more value than an empty schoolhouse.

When we first enter homelessness, we are often reduced to asking for help from others. Whether it is asking for a space on a couch with friends or family, getting a cot in a shelter, begging for change, asking for loans, or any other desperation bid for relief, it hurts. It hurts to need. It hurts to ask. It often hurts to receive, because the gifts come with advice, with condemnation, with strings. When people give something to you, they almost always want to direct how you use that help. You're in a one down position, and paying for charity costs a lot in time and in ego. This is the reason I don't like shelters. I don't like turning to parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, ex-wives, lovers, children, or others either. I don't even like government welfare, but at least I can feel some entitlement to government relief. We all pay taxes, so it belongs to me.

The most valuable resource you have is attitude, ego, a positive spirit. With a positive, confident attitude you can get jobs, create opportunities, and think clearly about your options. Depressed and melancholy, dejected and guilt-ridden it is nearly impossible to think creatively. Accept only those gifts that come freely, and that do not undermine your spirit. Anything else, you are better off without.

If you participate in charity work, I am not saying you should stop. Instead, I hope you will read my comments and let them inform your work. Maybe it will help you to improve the service you offer. The last thing I hope to do is to discourage anyone from reaching out to help others. Mostly I am arguing to the recipient of charity, so that he can consider carefully whether he wants to stand in that soup line.

Some readers have taken offense at the stand I have taken against homeless shelters. Others have asked me about my position on panhandling, how to panhandle and whether to give to panhandlers. In light of the Thanksgiving holiday, I thought it might be appropriate to talk about charity and the exceptionally destructive role it can have in the lives of the homeless.


At 8:19 AM, Blogger Marke said...

Do you suppose you'll give panhandling a try as an experiment the way you did staying overnight in a shelter?

At 9:30 AM, Blogger Mobile Homemaker said...

I've thought about it, but I don't think so. The idea stings even in concept. We do have to know our limits. Besides, wouldn't I be giving validation to the wealthy beggar myth? What if someone saw me get into my car when I went home? Should I get nice and dirty to create an illusion of visible homelessness, because then there really is a fraud issue.

It's a complicated and unpleasant prospect, and I don't think I would learn anything I needed to know. I am already compassionate toward beggars.

At 5:02 AM, Blogger squarepeg said...

Thank you again for your view on these issues. As usual, you've given me a new perspective and food for thought. By coincidence, my 12-yr-old daughter came home from school the other day and reported that a class discussion had revolved around charity and that her teacher (not a stupid woman whatsoever) voiced the myth of the wealthy beggar who might be squirreling away their loot in Swiss banks! I was able to use what I've learned from you to refute that.


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