Selective Compassion

Posted: April 29, 2008 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homelessness, Money, Panhandling

Today, about mid-afternoon, I stopped into a supermarket to get a bottle of water. When I exited there was a young woman who looked to be about thirty-something. She was asking for donations for the "rehab" program that she was enrolled in.

The name of the organization isn’t important, but it is a well known group. They offer an opportunity for people with some alcohol or drug addition disorders to become clean and sober. And in the process they also offer them a chance to build a "spiritual life."

I put a few dollars into the plastic container that was sitting atop a small folding table – the TV tray type. Then, because I have a well developed curiosity, I stayed and spoke with the young woman for about 15 minutes.  

As I asked her some general questions she said that she’d "entered" the program some seven months ago with a "big addiction." She told me that it felt good to be "clean and sober." When I asked about the donations, she said told me that each local "house" had to be self-sufficient. They do receive some funding, but most of the time it’s not enough to cover expenses. As a result, they have taken to soliciting donations.

Actually, it’s nothing new. There are plenty of non-profit agencies that will place someone at the entrance to a supermarket or other type of business seeking donations as people exit the businesses. During some holidays, it isn’t unusual to see several within a stone’s throw of one another.

As I left, I wished the young woman luck. And, I meant it. It was actually pretty nice to see someone who was in the process of rebuilding their life. I hope she makes it. I really do.

But as I was almost out of the parking area, I noticed that there was a homeless person standing near the exit with a cardboard sign. He didn’t look like something the cat had dragged in. His hair was a little "wind blown" and his clothing didn’t look as though he’d worn them for more than a day or two. He has some light stubble on his face, but not as bad as some I’ve seen. Because I had a few dollars extra to spare I handed them to the gentleman. Why not?

About an hour later, I began to think about both the young woman from the "rehab house" and the homeless gentleman with the sign. And I wondered: what was the difference between them? They were both asking for "donations." Neither one of them had a home. Sure, the young woman was being "housed" in the rehab program, but really, when you think about it, it’s not her "home."

The truth is that when I thought about it that way, I realized that they only real difference between them was that the young woman was under the "umbrella" of a non-profit organization and the homeless gentleman wasn’t. Other than that, when you pause to consider it, they were both engaged in the same activity: they were both asking for alms.

Of course, you could use the argument that a non-profit organization is doing "charitable work" with the donations they receive by feeding and clothing, and sometimes housing people. Yet, I’ve met quite a number of homeless who fall "between the cracks" and are unable to get help from some of these agencies.

The homeless gentleman I’d given the few dollars to didn’t have alcohol on his breath. In fact, he had a bottle of water. When I handed him the money, he was courteous and thanked me in a soft voice. Not exactly what most people would consider the run of the mill homeless person. What was he going to do with the money? I don’t know. However, from his demeanor, I like to think that he was going to get something to eat. Perhaps he was trying to come up with enough money to get a motel room for the night. More power to him.

Then another thought occurred to me.

We’ll give donations to non-profit organizations because we think we know what they’re going to do with the money. But do we really know? How much of what they take in goes toward salaries and administrative costs? How much really trickles down to those that are supposed to benefit from the donations?

Of the few dollars that I placed into that young woman’s donation jar, how much of it will directly benefit her?

I know with an absolute certainty that the homeless gentleman will get 100 percent of the benefit from the few dollars I gave him. There is no "trickle down" effect; no overhead to deal with.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t continue to make donations to the many non-profit agencies that do charitable work. We should be more than willing to help them help others. At the same time, we shouldn’t avoid – or refuse – to give a homeless person a dollar or two when it’s within our ability to do so because, when you think about it, who is more non-profit than a homeless person?

There should be enough room in our hearts to give to both the agencies that provide services to the homeless and to the homeless themselves.

Compassion is only of value when it isn’t selective.

  1. Aaron Wakling says:

    Good Blog. I will continue reading it in the future. Nice layout too.

  2. Dave says:

    The blog is well-written, but I disagree with you that there is no difference between giving a few dollars to a man on the street and giving a few dollars to an organization.

    While the organization will spend some of its money on overhead, that overhead buys some assurance that the money isn’t going to be used for further destructive purposes, such as continued drinking or drug use.

    This website rates charitible organizations effectiveness:


    Thank you for your comment, however, giving to a charity does not guarantee against “further destructive purposes” unless you assume that every homeless person who panhandles does indeed use those monies toward that purpose – an assumption based on misconceptions and stereotypes.

    Admittedly, there are a those homeless who have an addiction disorder but they represent a minority – only about 26%. Moreover, only about 6% of the homeless actually panhandle.

    Additionally, as someone who does not have an addicition disorder; who lived through homelessness AND had to panhandle, I can tell you from personal experience, not every who does so misuses the gifts that are given. And I know more homeless who do not abuse panhandling than I know those who do.

    – m –

    P.S. – Thank you for the hyperlink. I’ll add it to my ever growing list of references.

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