On Homelessness and Helping

Spring has come! ‘Tis the season of pink blossoms, green pastures, and showing off those white winter legs in a new pair of shorts. It’s the season of hiking, biking, and a growing disregard for dirt tracked into the living room.

It is also the season when we once again interact with certain neighbors in our community: homeless people who sleep under the city bridge and stand at the intersections.

These temperature temperatures have allowed me to transpose my runs back to the early morning, and it is there that I’ve encountered the familiar faces who rest on the park benches and wave to me as I huff past the library. And recently, I was overjoyed (though unsurprised) to find some great insights from Econtalk’s most recent episode, Erica Sandberg on Homelessness and Downtown Streets Team. It was the perfect confluence of these reminders that led me to reflect on the title’s question in a more practical way than ever before. I’ve concluded that there are three main things, actually constituting a hierarchy, that I want to remember when meeting and greeting homeless people in my neighborhood every day.

Good: It’s Yours (to Give Away)

The first time I encountered the below quote, I was struck by something that I had never before realized. In the recent past, I’ve tried to quell my desire to give money away, as I learned that my actions could incentivize begging or that the money would be spent on substances– both of which scenarios only exacerbate the person’s long-term sufferings. But is the chance of this enough to justify withholding assistance?

On the other hand, the economist in me notices that money can be used much more efficiently than in-kind donations of things like food and even gift cards. For example, cash can be applied to clothing and rent whereas fast food gift cards are obviously limited. Finally, there was one question that I couldn’t ignore: If I have extra change in my purse after all my needs (and even most wants) have been met, would it truly be better for me to hold onto it?

 “It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been ‘had for a sucker’ by any number of impostors: but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need… Another thing that annoys me is when people say ‘Why did you give that man money? He’ll probably go and drink it.’ My reply is ‘But if I’d kept [it] I should probably have drunk it.’” — C.S. Lewis

There is a strange ring of justice here; one that utilitarian calculations cannot truly grasp. As the famous English jurist William Blackstone once wrote, “It is better than ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent person suffer.” So, if I do come to the point of question, may the benefit of the doubt be with homeless people and may I give that extra food or money which is mine– mine to give away.

And my genuine smile and wave too, yes, those are mine to give away as well.

Even Better: The Dignity of Work

But there is still something better; charity is only a temporary fix for a persisting problem. As Sandberg describes in the EconTalk above, restoring dignity through work is unquestionably the sustainable solution. The goal is not that homeless people will remain the object of our charity, but rather that we will come alongside them to help them walk the way out of homelessness. This is precisely where the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity go hand-in-hand. See Pope Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno:

“Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (399)

The heart of solidarity is standing with one another through the trials and triumphs of life, essentially, recognizing our interdependence. The reason for both solidarity and subsidiarity are the same: human dignity. And part of human dignity is respecting the essential dignity of work. (For another great example in downtown LA, read Tattoos on the Heart.)

Best: You Need Them

Again, the dignity of work is wonderful, but there is still a prior wonder: the dignity of each human person. We need each other. We need our moms, our brothers, our friends, and we need the people in our city who are currently homeless. Each relationship is like an open door, allowing us to practice our human talents and to become even more ourselves than ever before. For a parting quote, I look to Pope Benedict:

“The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on…

In this sense we have a new need for that primordial trust which ultimately only faith can give. That the world is basically good, that God is there and is good. That it is good to live and to be a human being. This results, then, in the courage to rejoice, which in turn becomes commitment to making sure that other people, too, can rejoice and receive good news.”

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