Every week I read a publication called Chronicle of Philanthropy.  I
know…the title alone makes your eyelids heavy, doesn’t it?  What can I say, the development profession is
not for the faint of heart.  Or the

In addition to a handy listing of who’s looking to give
money away that week, the CoP
publishes interesting articles about the psychology of giving.  It seems that humans are more likely to
donate money to help an individual about which they know one small fact than
they are to help a large group of people, however tragic their

So, tell people that hundreds of children die of Bad Disease
each year, and your donation can help researchers find a cure, and you’ll get
some bucks.  But introduce people to Little
Billy who has Bad Disease and loves baseball, and your donation may help save
his life or at least buy him tickets to some major league games, and the dough
comes pouring in.

Another CoP
article reported on a study about people’s perceptions of the worthiness of a
needy individual and how that affected their behavior.  The subjects were given a pretend $10 to
distribute among three needy people. 
They were told that Needy 1 was actively looking for work.  Needy 2 had worked in the past but was not
now seeking employment.  Needy 3 had
never worked and had no plans to do so.

No other information was given.  The subjects had no clue whether the Needies
were male or female, how old they were, what kind of health they were in,
whether or not they had young children, what kind of work skills they
possessed, what level of education they had attained, whether they suffered
from a disabling condition, etc.

I’m sure you can guess the result.  Needy 1 received the most money from the
subjects, and Needy 3 the least.  Even
though one might argue that Needy 3, who is apparently totally unable to
support his or herself, had the greatest need of charity.

I was thinking about that study while I read Tell Them Who I Am.  The author quit his government job after he
was diagnosed with cancer to spend the remainder of his life doing something
more meaningful.  He volunteered his time
in soup kitchens and in shelters for homeless women.  An anthropologist by trade, he couldn’t help
writing a book about them.

The women who stay at the shelter are, in the eyes of the
larger society, invisible.  They are not
the foul-smelling, muttering, crazy-eyed homeless like the guy I drive by every
day who stands on his corner in filthy rags and gesticulates wildly at the
passing traffic.  The women in the book
arrive when the shelter opens at 7 pm. 
They eat a meal together, take turns washing their clothes, share
stories of their days.  They sleep on
cots in one big room.  They wake very
early, wait in line for showers, eat a cold breakfast, and leave the
building.  They have to be out by 7 am.

Many of those women go to work.  Others embark on the endless, soul-deadening
rounds of employment agencies, social service agencies, and medical
services.  Some, having nothing to do and
nowhere to go, sit on park benches, or in the public library, or in diners or
coffee shops. 

At a Starbucks I sometimes visit there’s a woman who
sits.  She’s almost always there.  She doesn’t read papers, magazines, or
books.  She doesn’t pound on a
computer.  She doesn’t talk to
anyone.  She just sits.  She’s about 50, I think, pleasant looking,
not dirty or shabby or stinky or crazy-eyed. 
And perhaps she’s homeless, whiling away the hours in a shop with a
tolerant staff, until her shelter opens at 7 pm.  I don’t know.

It’s hard to get a job when you’re homeless, and it’s hard
to get a home when you’re homeless. 
Nobody wants to deal with someone who’s homeless.  We avoid them as if homelessness were a
contagious disease.  If you had an
apartment to let, and a homeless person who had finally scraped together enough
cash for the deposit and the first month appeared at the door, you’d think
twice, would you not? 

Anyone would, and rightfully so.  Such a person represents a poor risk.  But you can see how such prejudice greatly
complicates the business of becoming unhomeless.  Add discrimination to low skills, zero
confidence, mental illness, substance abuse, lack of a telephone, and other
impediments to self-sufficiency people may have, and getting a roof of one’s
own becomes very difficult indeed.

While I read about the women in the book, I was wondering
which one thing philanthropists would want to know about them.  Would the ones who work but don’t earn enough
to get housing be more sympathetic than the ones who can’t hold a job?  Would it help to know about the woman who
sews all her own clothes and stores them neatly on a rod hung in her car?  Would they feel sympathy with the woman whose
doctor tells her to stay off her feet due to severe arthritis, but who
nevertheless spends the day walking the streets because she has no place to lie
down from 7 am to 7 pm? 

I tell my ten-year-old not to be too quick to judge people
harshly if she doesn’t know where they’ve come from or what’s happened to
them.  Most people evoke more sympathy when their stories become known. 
Humanity, it seems, is in the details. 


20 thoughts on “

  1. Our treatment of the homeless in this country is shameful, particularly given the high rate of mental illness.  Our newspaper carried an article about a guy who was boasting that he’d turned his dogs loose on a homeless man to chase him out of his neighborhood.  I wrote a letter about NIMBYism and the shameful role of both residents and city.  Needless to say there are a few people who still don’t talk to me.  At least I’m not in their back yard.
    Well written post.

  2. We have a woman in our small town who is bipolar, everyone knows her.  Everyone knows her name.  People generally keep their collective eye on her. She says & does some very strange things.  She appears to have no family.  She appears to have no home.  Her primary mode of transportation is a bike all year long.  I have often wondered out loud how terrible it must be to have no one to take care of you when your life is a mess.  No one to make sure you take your meds, no one to make sure you see a doctor, no one to make sure you have a decent place to live.  Did she ever have anyone? I don’t know, but why do we (collectively) think that some agency will take care of these people, it’s obvious that an agency can only do so much.  Sometimes I think we are so overburdened with the plight of society that we have to look away in order to keep from becoming overwhelmed by so much need.

  3. As we have moved from small communities with close connections needed for survival, and into a lareg city based existance with almost unlimited mobility, our desire and ability to care for the needy has changed.  We no longer see them as ‘US’ and prefer to think of them as ‘Others’, not having a direct relation to our lives and existance.  It is the same for a lot of disenfranchised folks.  Immigrants, and mentally ill, and homless all share some level of stigmatism. A level of ‘others’ that makes it ok to not acknowledge them or help them.  I’m guilty too.  I prefer not to acknowledge the folks on the off ramps or give them money.  But I don’t know thier story, and I tell myself that I don’t need to.  Shame on me.

  4. This is wonderful… I teach religion to 8th graders… and one of our chapters is on stewardship and discipleship… when one of them told me that homeless people are ‘icky’ it began a campaign of 10minutes of every class being used to talk about homelessness… I am not sure I changed any minds, kids can be stubborn, but they sure won’t say that in public again! LOL If we all would just realize how close so many of us are to homelessness it might make a difference….

  5. This is a beautiful post.  Your new  friend, Gloria Steinem, used to write about homeless women in MS. Magazine.  Back then they were referred to as “Bag Ladies.”  She always felt that she herself was probably only  a couple of paychecks away from homelessness. She wrote once that if she ever found herself in such a predicament, she’d  organize all the Bag Ladies into a union, and protest.   No one doubted it for a second!

  6. You said it. There’s sometimes surprisingly little difference between things that we’re made to believe are diametric opposites: success vs. failure; good vs. evil; republican vs. democrat; Coke vs. Pepsi; butter vs. margarine. Though I always prefer real butter to that fake stuff, myself.

  7. What makes giving to the homeless on the street difficult is that some are truly in bad circumstances thru no fault of their own and some are just plain bums who choose to be just bums.   As a local newspaper pundit pointed out….bumness is their occupation.  Thinking now is not to contribute on the street but to direct them to shelters set up and financed by tax money.   I’m always amazed why a “homeless” person would stay in a climate where freezing in the winter is a problem rather than migrate to warmer locales.

  8. Jodi, I couldn’t get what I wanted over to you on email without it all turning into a run-on paragraph, so I just posted it. Thanks for another wonderful post. Love your blog, Lisa

  9. Out here in the suburbs we don’t see many homeless. Maybe on a street corner carrying a sign. It is hard to take some food to such a person and have it rejected because they want money. Money to walk in the liquour store for their cheap bottle.
    We do see on occasion a young man carrying a child as we enter Denney’s. He got out hand out once, he’ll not get it again. How do you report him to social services to check the welfare of that child? You don’t know where he lives.
    Another aspect of your prejudices forming is watching those in the HUD house next door to you spend money on ‘things’ for their kids and themselves. Neither work. You are lucky if they cut the grass and take out the garbage.
    I’m almost at the point in my life where I feel there is nothing I can do to help.

  10. I live in a city where the mentally ill, retarded and jobless are well taken care of. They have rooves over their heads, they have people to make sure they take their medicine (case managers), they get monthly SSI checks, food stamps and free health care (medicaid). Fortunately my city is small enough that nobody has to fall through the cracks. Your post failed to mentioned the traps of drugs and prostitution that the homeless often fall into (another obstacle which prevents them from ever living a “normal” life). Truly sad.

  11. Great, great post. Most of the non-profits with whom I am involved know this: you can tell from the way they package their pleas. Take Heifer Project;their catalog is a series of success stories telling how one woman,or one family, or one child raised a gift animal with training from Heifer and made a positive change in his/her/their community.However, these are generally people overseas in abject poverty with no access to drugs and no incentive to steal anyone else’s stuff because no one else has anything either. Poverty and homelessness is different in developed countries because our homeless see others who not only have homes, but have several large homes. And drug abuse and metal illness exponentially worsen the problem. Take New Orleans. I heard yesterday on NPR that the chief of police is advising poor people with mentally ill family members to have them arrested so that they can at least get them off the street so they won’t hurt someone else or themselves. What other developed nation has a city with no way to deal with the indigent mentally ill?

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