Instead Of Asking “Why” We Should Be Asking “How”

Posted: August 28, 2009 in Acceptance, Compassion, Goals, Government, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Housing, Morality

In late May of 2008, I wrote a post called: Why Help The Homeless?

It was my attempt to answer one of the most frequent and common inquires this blog receives: "Why should we help the homeless?"

In the end, my answer was simply that we should help the homeless because it’s the right thing to do.

To be sure, my answer was an altruistic one. But, when all is said and done, showing basic compassion to our fellow human being – regardless of their social standing within the community – is the clearest sign of humane society.  

This past week, I received an email from a gentleman named John Carlisle.

He and I exchanged a few emails after he posted a comment to one of my most recent posts.

In his last email, regarding the city council in his town, Mr. Carlisle wrote:

"… I think their failing to do anything significant for the many past years is confirmation of that. And they certainly don’t know best how to manage homelessness in our area. Actually, I’m not sure who does. If you know, please let me know. We have had a Continuum of Care group that has met monthly for over 5 years and we don’t even have a 10 year plan that could help us get Federal funding. So, clearly, we don’t have answers.

My efforts have been directed to getting to know many of the homeless and their advocates, to get an idea of their needs and desires."

It was clear to me that Mr. Carlisle wasn’t asking why we should help the homeless. Rather, he was inquiring how to best go about helping them.

Many times, I receive emails from folks who want to do something to provide for their local area homeless. However, the majority of the time, those folks have already decided on a course of action – which usually involves donating to their local shelters or putting together "care packages" to distribute to folks living on the street.

So, when they do email me, they are asking my opinion as to what types of donations to make.

I advise them the best I can. All the same, there is one reality that remains: while these folks are doing these things out of the kindness of their hearts, after everything is said and done, the homeless will still be homeless.

Don’t misunderstand me, I thoroughly approve of those folks wanting to do some kindness for the homeless.

But, if as a society, we truly want to reduce the numbers of homeless in our communities, we must begin thinking beyond meeting only the immediate needs of our homeless. We need to start focusing on striving to help the homeless become housed and as self-sustaining as possible.

Admittedly, not every person experiencing homeless may be able to reach complete self-reliance. On the other hand however, a significant portion of them can. All they require is a little bit of "extra" intervention to help get them back on their feet.

The only way for us to actually go about helping them achieve that, is for us to beginning asking them what they need. And, that requires that we engage in a dialogue with the homeless themselves.

Let me give an analogy…

If you developed a malady which required medical attention, to be properly diagnosed and treated, you yourself would have to visit the doctor. It isn’t something which could be done by proxy.

Similarly, if we genuinely want to significantly reduce and end homelessness, we have to beginning listening to the homeless. After all, who better knows their needs than themselves?

Historically, local governments and homeless advocacy groups have been the ones discussing how to address homelessness in their communities. All the while, the voices of the homeless themselves have gone unheard.

It seems to me instead of asking why we should help the homeless; we should be asking ourselves how to help them.

But, the "how" will only have a true validity if we include the homeless in our dialogues.

  1. Steven says:

    Michael – while it is “the right thing to do,” indeed, I’ve found that the argument immediately begins gaining traction as soon as I begin citing the numbers related to money spent on homelessness versus housed individuals.

    As anyone who deals with serving the homeless population knows very quickly, we spend tons of money on folks who aren’t housed and save megatons of money on them once we get them into housing.

    Works every time because if there’s one thing people understand quickly, it’s the impact to their dollar bottom line! :-)

    Also, wanted to say thanks for the research done on the Homeless Nashville site; I’ve posted it and forwarded it on to the powers in our community. I’ll continue to follow up on this as things develop.

    Peace my friend and keep fighting the good fight!

  2. Cheryl Anderson says:

    My brother ended up living on the streets and at 32 was found almost frozen on the sidewalk. He died in my arms 3 days later. That was Feb.15, 1992.
    There at the hospital I met his homeless friends and this is when reality hit me. This is not their fault. I found something amazing about these people. They had more love and respect for each other than most people who are well off.
    One of his friends came in for the second time and I realized his coat had been burned. I asked him what happened and he told me that there were several of Michaels friends outside the hospital and they were being harrassed by almost all who entered the hospital. One had tried to set him on fire because he would not leave my brothers side.
    These people have all gone through issues that have torn them apart.
    Why is it that people think the worse of them, and will do anything in there power to get them out of site?
    I tell people about my brother Michael all the time. I was proud of his heart,and his soul. It had been beaten though and there wasn’t anything I did that helped him.
    I guess these non-human beings who only want to kick these people from sidewalk to benches and so on have never had to hold a family member as they leaked fluid from every oraface they had until they died that painful death.
    When I asked why this was happening to him, the Dr told me that this is normal for the homeless due to not being able to properly wash their hands.
    My heart will never grow back and the pain I feel from those memories have me just as upset as I was when I was with him till the end. After he passed a nurse had told me that Mike was in the process of starting a newspaper for the homeless. He felt that some would reach out and offer whatever help they could.
    I am 52 and just went back to school to get my degree so that I can one day soon take action and fight for all that suffer. I have tried to help but just as many of you have tried, people won’t listen. I am working for that piece of paper, that will give me access to more people to listen to me.
    I am writing a report on the homeless for a school essay. I promise that those people in my class will see homeless people in a much different way when I am done.
    God Bless you all and Never Give Up!

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