i hate seeing panhandlers (and the complexity of poverty)

Confession: I hate seeing panhandlers.  All these conflicting thoughts immediately start flooding through my mind when I see them: “I want to help… I don’t want them to waste my money… I shouldn’t be judging them… They look healthy enough to get a job…  I’d rather use my money to help the poor on a larger scale…”  (that last thought doesn’t sound quite like that when I’m sitting there in my car, but you get the idea :P)  It’s even worse when they try to do something in exchange for money – e.g. squeegeeing my windshield (it was cleaner BEFORE you touched it!!), ushering me into a spot on the street (I found it before you came running up, stop trying to take credit!!)…
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Then I end up getting frustrated at myself, at them… and when I finally get away I feel relieved, guilty for feeling relieved, and guilty for not helping out.
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Argh, I hate seeing panhandlers.  But not because of them… because of me.
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I hate my inaction.  I hate my judgmentalism.  I hate that I can’t singlehandedly wipe out poverty (I know, I know..  didn’t you read the post about my god-complex? :P)
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Maybe in part to assuage my guilt, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I can do to actually “help the poor on a larger scale” (did I just quote myself in my own blog?  Yes, yes I did).  The annoying thing is that it’s really complicated.  (Disclaimer: I’m simplifying things big-time in the next couple of statements.)
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  • Food banks, welfare, and Medicaid help with hunger, unemployment, and medical expenses… but they can also cause dependency. [1]
  • Holiday gift drives and school supply drives provide what could not have been purchased otherwise… but they can also disempower those they’re trying to help. [2]
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Just a couple examples, but you get the point.  Obviously, each of these initiatives has pros and an appropriate time and place.  But it’s important to look at both sides – especially if what we’re doing could be causing more harm than good! [3]
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One of the most important distinctions to make is whether those we are trying to help need relief, rehabilitation, or development.  Relief is immediate care in response to an urgent emergency or crisis.  Rehabilitation “begins as soon as the bleeding stops” and helps to restore people to their pre-crisis conditions.  Development is in it for the long haul, helping communities pursue ongoing change and improvement.  Doing the wrong thing in a given situation might help in the short-term but ultimately hurt in the long-term.  
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Here are a few things to consider when determining what’s most appropriate (from When Helping Hurts, chapter 4):
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1) Is it really a crisis?  If you fail to provide immediate help, will there really be serious, negative consequences?  If not, relief is not appropriate.
2) To what degree was the individual personally responsible for the situation?  If there was some personal responsibility involved, ensure the appropriate lessons are being learned.
3) Can the person help himself?  If so, a pure handout undermines the person’s capacity to be a steward of his own resources and abilities.
4) Has this person already been receiving relief from you or others?  If she’s been receiving “emergency” relief from multiple sources, the most loving thing to do might be to withhold further relief, explain why, and offer to walk alongside her in finding a long-term solution.
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(I specifically refer to churches in the next section, but it could apply to any group that wants to help.)
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The really cool thing about churches is that they can address problems on all ends of this spectrum.  First, we know that churches are called to help (check out my last post).  Second, you’re in a space where you’ll probably be for some time, so you have the unique potential to walk with a person from relief to rehab and all the way through development.  Third, you’re probably surrounded by nonprofits who know how to help – and they need volunteers!  A nonprofit often has the tools to do just relief or just rehab, but a church can “adopt” a community or specific set of individuals and then work with multiple organizations to ensure that help is provided in the right way at the right time.
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I’m gonna end with the same quote from my last post:
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“There are some 340,000 Christian churches in the United States and about 155 million regular churchgoers.  Let those numbers sink in for just a minute.  Think of the possibilities…  Ponder the potential to change the world if all these churchgoers ‘activated’ and ramped up their commitment to love their neighbors to a new, even higher level.” (The Hole in Our Gospel, chapter 22)
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Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could all work together to “help the poor on a larger scale”? 🙂
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P.S.  Oh, so what about panhandlers?  These guys say it better than I ever could:
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[2] “[After] several years, Pastor Johnson noticed that he was struggling to find enough volunteers to deliver the gifts to the hosing project.  At the congregational meeting, he asked the members why their enthusiasm was waning, but it was difficult to get a clear answer.  Finally, one member spoke up: ‘Pastor, we are tired of trying to help these people out.  We have been bringing them things for several years now, but their situation never improves.  They just sit there in the same situation year in and year out.  Have you ever noticed that there are no men in the apartments when we deliver the toys?  The residents are all unwed mothers who just keep having babies in order to collect bigger and bigger welfare checks.  They don’t deserve our help.’   In reality, there was a different reason that there were few men in the apartments when the toys were delivered.  Oftentimes, when the fathers of the children heard the Christmas carols outside their front doors and saw the presents for their kids through the peepholes, they were embarrassed and ran out the back doors of their apartments.  For a host of reasons, low-income African-American males sometimes struggle to find and keep jobs.  This often contributes to a deep sense of shame and inadequacy, both of which make it even more difficult to apply for jobs.  The last thing these fathers needed was a group of middle-to-upper-class Caucasians providing Christmas presents for their children, presents that they themselves could not afford to buy.  In trying to alleviate material poverty through the giving of these presents, [the church] increased these fathers’ poverty of being.  Ironically, this likely made the fathers even less able to apply for a job, thereby exacerbating the very material poverty that [the church] was trying to solve!  In addition to hurting the residents of the housing project, the [church members] hurt themselves.  At first the members developed a subtle sense of pride that they were helping the project residents through their acts of kindness.  Later, when they observed the residents’ failure to improve their situations, the members’ disdain for them increased.  What is often called ‘compassion fatigue’ then set in as the members became less willing to help the low-income residents…  Furthermore, the poverty of community increased for everyone involved, as the gulf between the church members and the housing project residents actually increased as a result of this project. (When Helping Hurts, chapter 2)
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http://www.ssireview.org/articles/entry/when_good_is_not_good_enough?utm_source=Enews&utm_medium=email&utm_content=1&utm_campaign=From_Maghttp://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2012/february/popular-strategies-helping-the-poor.html?paging=off

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4 thoughts on “i hate seeing panhandlers (and the complexity of poverty)

  1. Nice post. I like that you defined and emphasized the three aspects of relief, rehabilitation and development. All three are necessary and yet so often disconnected. How do we link these three aspects together?

    • Great question, Troy! I’m curious also – are there any organizations out there that coordinate relief, rehab, and development efforts so that there can be a seamless transition from one to the next for a given community?

      • actually, i guess relief, rehab, and development aren’t necessarily linear. as this paper suggests, these efforts can – and perhaps should be – implemented simultaneously: “relief and development are no longer viewed as self-contained and mutually exclusive. Linkages can and must be made if reconstruction and development are to be sustainable, and recurring relief avoided” (http://www.watsoninstitute.org/pub/OP33.pdf)

  2. Pingback: Charity can hurt (and man, I’m a mooch!) | sporadic sputterings

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