TELL THEM WHO I AM
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.
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
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.