A Better Place To Live

Posted: October 25, 2008 in Acceptance, Compassion, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Hunger, Money, Morality

Two of the most frequently used search engine inquiries which show up on the list of how folks find this blog are, what is the impact homelessness has on the community and why should we help the homeless.

I’ve written a number of posts on those two topics. I’ve also received a quite a number of e-mails on those posts. Most of the e-mails are supportive of what I’ve written. There are also a handful of them which disagree with my personal opinion on those topics. And, of course, there are those e-mails which pretty much accuse me of having lost my mind. Such is life.  

Yesterday however, there was an inquiry which was almost a combination of the two: how helping the homeless impacts a community.

It certainly is not an inquiry I remember having seen before. As a result, it caused me to really stop and think about it. And, the more I wondered about it, the more the word "impact" jumped out at me. Despite knowing the tense in which the word was used, still I looked the word up in the dictionary to see how it was defined.

One of the definitions I found for the word was:

to have an effect upon

With that I was able to paraphrase the inquiry and ask myself: what effect would helping the homeless have on the community?

Apart from the obvious answer that it might reduce the suffering of others – in this case, the homeless – it seemed to me that another effect might be to give the community at bit more pride in itself by having done the right thing. Straightaway, there were other benefits which I could envision if a community were to genuinely help its homeless citizens. But, all at once, I realized that those benefits were entirely predicated on the types of assistance a community offered.

Currently, the types of assistance which are usually offered by a community to its homeless population come in the form of services through homeless shelters or drop day centers for the homeless. These services are for the most part, a hot meal and – when space allows – a bed for the evening. To be sure, most shelters also offer their clients the ability to shower, clothing (when available), and perhaps a few others. Yet, these are only the most basic of services. And while they do provide for day to day survival, they do not offer a true means of escape from a life on the streets. And, this is why there is very little headway being made in significantly reducing the number of people who find themselves homeless every year.

Yes, I know that more and more cities across the nation are implementing "10 year plans" to end homelessness. However, these plans – in my opinion – also are not enough to stem the ever increasing numbers of persons becoming homeless, particularly since they address the needs of only a minute fraction of a community’s overall homeless population: the chronically homeless.

The sad reality is that, in the day to day lives of most homeless persons, planning for the future is not the priority. The priority is to get through this day with its needs of eating and finding a relatively safe place to sleep tonight. Tomorrow the struggle will begin all over again. And, in the end, this day to day routine becomes a vicious cycle which is extremely difficult to escape from. It is existence in its meanest form.

Perhaps part of the struggles we have with trying to provide assistance to our homeless is that we seem to be unclear of what we can do as a community. We give our donations to those agencies which help the homeless, but don’t seem to see a decrease in the number of folks living on the streets. As a result, it doesn’t give us an incentive to do more. In fact, it may even have the opposite effect and cause some folks to give up trying to help altogether.

A number of weeks ago, the news media kept bombarding us with Congress’ move to bail out Wall Street financial institutions. There were staunch voices on both sides of the issue. In the end though, the bill passed and taxpayer dollars were spent. Then the news media, such as the Chicago Tribune, reported (AIG, party on!) malfeasant behavior by AIG – a company which had received $85 billion in bailout money – paid for by the U.S. taxpayers, of course. AIG had spent $440,000 to throw a party for some of their employees and guests.

Why this occurred is clear: lack of oversight by Congress with regards to just handing bailout money to this company and not placing restrictions on how the money could be spent.

If we truly desire to see a reduction in the numbers of homeless, we are going to have to "bail out" the homeless support services agencies in our respective communities. But, we are going to have to also provide oversight.

It’s the right thing to do to help these agencies help the homeless. But we must also then require them to begin providing the types of assistance which can truly help the homeless find a way off of the streets. We must hold them accountable, not only for the services they do provide, but for those which they should be providing, but aren’t.

I’m not saying that reducing the numbers of homeless will be an easy task. It won’t be. And, quite honestly, it will take some doing – financial and otherwise. However, we have a moral obligation, not only to those of our fellow citizens who find themselves without a place to live, but to ourselves as well.

But, investing in effective and viable programs which help the homeless help themselves is only one side of the coin however. The other side of the coin is that we must be willing to accept the homeless for what they are: people.

It shouldn’t matter than they may not have the most laundered of appearances. It shouldn’t matter that some of them panhandle. It shouldn’t matter than some of the homeless dig through our trash cans looking for items to recycle. It shouldn’t even matter that some of the homeless choose to be homeless.

The only thing that should matter is that there are some in our communities who need our help – and that we have a moral obligation to offer assistance to those who truly desire it.

What effect would helping the homeless have on the community?

It would make the community a better place to live for all of us. It would make the community a place we could all be proud to call home.

And… it would make us all better people in the long run.

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