Anyone Can Help The Homeless

Posted: December 4, 2009 in Compassion, Discrimination, Friendship, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Morality, Poverty, Stereotypes

I came across a wonderful post over at poverty attorney Jacqueline Dowd’s blog, the 13th juror a couple of days ago.

It was about a gentleman named James Burnett – who is also known as "Shakey."

For the last two decades, Mr. Burnett – who is 60 – has been volunteering at soup kitchens and serving food to the homeless. He has helped find sleeping bags for the homeless. He has mopped floors in church shelters and has cleaned up "soiled bathrooms."

According to the article in the St. Petersburg Times, Mr. Burnett’s efforts to help the area’s homeless have not gone unnoticed. And to honor his spirit of volunteerism, the city of Tarpon Springs, FL has officially named its cold night shelter: The James "Shakey" Burnett Cold Night Shelter.

Oh. Did I mention that Mr. Burnett is himself homeless?  

Originally from Greenville, S.C., Mr. Burnett, when he was 34, was in an automobile accident that left him with neck and spinal injuries. Those injuries left him paralyzed for 9 months.

Although he learned how to walk again, he does so with a "shake" – subsequently, the nickname, "Shakey."

As I read the article, I couldn’t help but think about the ways some folks perceive the homeless.

All too often, the homeless are thought of as "takers" – folks who are supported by the community without contributing or giving back anything in return.

In fact, among those who are the most strongly opposed to providing services to the homeless, the argument is usually something along the lines of: "Why should my hard earned tax dollars go to support a bunch of lazy bums?"

To be sure, there are some homeless who are content – and prefer – to "sponge" off of the community around them. So, I can understand the reasoning of folks who don’t feel a responsibility to help them. Nor, do I fault them for their not wanting to help.

On the other hand, there are those who, like Mr. Burnett, have found themselves homeless due to a series of circumstances which they could not entirely control. They are not "bums." They are folks who are victims of a socio-economic condition – namely: not being able to afford housing of their own.

Unfortunately though, because of the "label" of homeless, they are perceived through the stigmas of misconceptions and stereotypes. And by grouping them all together, as though homelessness were a character trait, we deny them their individuality. This is why we fall short of the mark when it comes to providing our nation’s homeless with the appropriate types of services that can create a pathway to getting off the streets.

And that is where this time of the year could be being used to the greater good.

You see, during this time of the year – when folks are feeling a bit more charitable and filled with "good will" toward others – there is generally less public animus toward the homeless.

This, therefore, makes it an absolutely ideal time for homeless support service organizations to really help the homeless.

But I’m not talking about just the providing of food, shelter or special holiday meals. Instead, I’m thinking more along the lines of raising public awareness and the dispelling of the homeless stereotypes.

I’m convinced that if more folks thought of the homeless as being worthy of assistance, more assistance would be being offered to the homeless.

And, that’s a key phrase: worthy of assistance.

James "Shakey" Burnett – homeless though he may be – has been "giving back" to his community for over 20 years.

He may have little or nothing in the area of personal or material possessions. But he is certainly wealthy where it really counts: being compassionate and putting that compassion into action.

There are, on the other hand, some folks who have an abundance of material possessions, but who are "compassion impoverished."

Into which category to you fall?

"I just believe that if you help somebody, somebody’s going to help you. It might not come when you want it, but it comes."
– James "Shakey" Burnett –

  1. Skye says:

    Mr. Burnett knows what it means to “pay it forward”. We can all learn from him.

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