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The Homeless: Investing or Enabling?

September 20, 2010

I think I should begin this blog with a warning.

  1. It will contain more questions than answers.
  2. It was prompted by a random, frustrating experience that raised questions for me.

This experience began a few weeks ago while mowing the grass at my office.  A friend stopped by so I shut the mower down for a brief visit.  As we visited, a few homeless people passed by.  These people were not total strangers to me.  They live in the downtown area of my community, spending nights in a shelter and days walking or sitting in the park.  One of the men asked if he could finish mowing my lawn for a little money.  I said “No thanks, I’ve got it covered.”  But the man persisted and said he could sure use the money.  So I agreed.  He finished what was left to do, taking the mower back to the storage shed.  I paid him, he expressed his gratitude, and left.  I felt good.  I had helped someone down on his luck.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?  The “haves” help the “have-nots”, paying it forward until our world is a better place.  That’s what I thought until I went to mow the next week and discovered that during the week someone had crawled through a small opening, unlocked a gate, and taken my gas can and other items out of my shed.  Obviously I don’t know that the homeless man is the culprit.  It may have been one of life’s coincidences that my things were taken shortly after he mowed.  But now instead of feeling good, I felt cheated, violated.  I found myself feeling angry about a set of circumstances that I couldn’t change.

Then I began to think about my experience in a broader way.  I thought about the increased focus on “rescuing” the homeless in our community over the last several months.  Groups of people have given time, money, clothes, food, and shelter to the increasing number of people living on the streets.  The need is clearly great and people have responded with commitment and compassion.

I just wonder if in our haste to help, we miss the opportunity to invest in people in a way that invites them to contribute to their community in the ways they can.  Are we respecting them enough to expect something of them, to hold them accountable for their presence and its impact.  Are we talking with them about what it means to be a community member in small but important ways like picking up the trash from the meal they ate while sitting on office steps or a park bench.  Are we talking with them about what it looks like to work together with us to create a community where our public places are cared for and safe.  Where our personal belongings are not seen as there for the taking.

Wouldn’t it be a shame if our desire to rescue the homeless “enabled” them to stay stuck in a position of neediness instead of gaining the self regard that comes from participating in community.  What if in our haste to “make their lives better” we fail to respect that, in spite of our best efforts, some will choose to stay on the streets, or will continue to make poor choices that affect our ability to grow and maintain a healthy community.

The following report, The Cost of Homelessness in Oklahoma City April 1, 2009 to March 31, 2010, gives a thorough and insightful look at the problems and solutions related to homelessness.  Access the pdf file at www.okc.gov/planning/homelessness/homelesscosts.pdf

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