Dear Patty and Sandy,
Every day I pass at least a half-dozen homeless people on my way to work. I feel terrible for them, worse when they ask me for money, and worse still when I turn up my iPod and walk away. I struggle every day with whether to give them some coins or a buck but don't want them to get used to me giving them money, and I don't want them to spend it on drugs or alcohol. It's not that I can't afford it, but I don't want to become an enabler. Your advice?
Jo in Philadelphia
Being asked for money on a daily basis makes a lot of people uncomfortable—especially when they think the money might go to buy drugs or fund other unsavory activities. Homelessness is arguably the most visible manifestation of social injustice. If you're determined to do something other than use your iPod as a buffer, I suggest you start just as you have—by thinking about your different options. Do you give money just because you can, or do you worry so much about enabling that you decide not to do anything at all? Do you hand out sandwiches or donate directly to your local shelter? Do you find a job-training center that works to help the homeless find employment, or vote for legislation that funds transitional housing?
One out of every 200 Americans utilized an emergency residential program between Oct. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007. And while it's estimated that only a small percentage of those people are panhandling, many of us (especially in urban areas) are regularly asked for money. I've decided not to give to the half-dozen people I see on my way to work each day and instead give to organizations that advocate for the homeless in my area. I also buy the occasional sandwich for the guy who sells the "Street Sheet" outside my grocery store. If you feel compelled to give to someone directly, be honest with yourself that your action isn't really about ending homelessness—but more about reinforcing shared humanity.
For Jo specifically, the Philadelphia Inquirer did a great series on homelessness in Philadelphia last February. There are a lot of effective organizations working with the homeless in Philadelphia, such as Project H.O.M.E., a nonprofit that focuses on empowering the chronically homeless through a combination of services, advocacy, and education. You can read the National Coalition for the Homeless fact sheet on "How YOU Can Help End Homelessness" for good info on volunteering your time, joining advocacy groups, and donating both money and products. Whether you decide to donate money or time, or merely let people in need know about services, my guess is that you'll feel better the next time you tell someone no.
Sandy provides sandwiches, but I recommend not giving handouts. That may be because Sandy commutes by foot and faces her neighbors in need more personally than I do. My commute involves two different stoplights where I am sure to get asked for funds by homeless men, but I have to be honest: My car insulates me from their pain. Perhaps we would all do more about the issue if every one of us spent even a few seconds with homeless people each day. If the current economy is an indication, the numbers of people experiencing homelessness will grow in your community. I'm not prone to quoting Scripture—but I do subscribe to the belief that whatever you do for the least among us ... that you do unto me. Jo, I would recommend you start by doing two things:
1. Avoid giving directly to the man or woman on the street—but do address him or her with the same human regard you give others in your path. As Sandy says, if you do decide to give them something on the spot, be sure you are realistic about why you're giving and what it will achieve.
2. Get a plan and start acting on your concern: Spend two hours—about the same amount of time your last dinner with friends lasted—and find out more about who and how many are homeless in your community and who provides shelter in your area and who provides hot meals. Then turn back to your own life: Stop and calculate how much, roughly speaking, you spend each week and year on shelter and food. And then consider how much you would need to spend if things went terribly wrong in your life to ensure just your bare necessities of shelter and food.
With that information in hand—the general and the specific—you can decide what you want to do to address the needs of those in your own neighborhood who are without stable shelter and regular meals.
Whatever actions or amount you end up committing—and I realize that amount will vary depending on your own income as well as other giving and life priorities—decide how much of that (money, time, or voice) you want to spend on the immediate needs of the folks in your neighborhood, on prevention efforts, and on public and political advocacy. Then make your commitment and give those dollars and that time to the best organizations you can find.
But don't end there. Commit yourself to continuing to put in that hour every quarter or every year to learn more, as you would for other investments in your life.
A personal aside: In my hometown of Seattle, a wide range of agencies and community and government leaders are cooperating on an ambitious 10-year plan to end homelessness in King County. I focus my own giving in ways that support that plan. I give regularly through the Seattle Foundation to two local organizations that focus on preventing homelessness and helping families in their transition back to having a home. The more than 700 community foundations in this country provide an important network of local knowledge and can assist individuals in finding excellent organizations in their area.
Do you have a real-life do-gooding dilemma? Please send it to email@example.com and Patty and Sandy will try to answer it.
In our ongoing effort to do better ourselves, we're donating 25 percent of the proceeds from this column to ONE.org—an organization committed to raising public awareness about the issues of global poverty, hunger, and disease and the efforts to fight such problems in the world's poorest countries.