Monday, July 28, 2008

Homelessness in Perspective...

There are several posts about homelessness today, most of them written far more beautifully and more evocatively than I can muster.

I have some strong feelings about the issue as most do, but mine might be a bit different than what you'll read elsewhere.

I think of the root of the problem. Why would any society allow people to live on the streets like soi dogs, begging for food, water, medical care or housing?

And what does that say about the society?

For those of us who already know, what can we do to help? What can we do to create the social change that is necessary to alleviate that type of suffering? And should we even concentrate on that at all?

Equally important, how do we deal with the problem in the short-term - to keep people alive while the long term can be examined and the time can be given for cultural change to take place?

Why do we help homeless people? We help them because we know at the root that we are not separate and they need the help. Ultimately, there is no larger objective. We help them because they need help and because we can.

We don't need to evaluate each case and decide who is deserving and who is not. We don't need to put conditions on it. We don't need to lord it over another human being and say "I think you deserve help because you fit the criteria of my personal judgement system but your friend Sam just doesn't cut it". We need to do it because we are human beings and we need to do it because that's Right Action.

In the larger sense, we all need to make some decisions about policies; local, state and national. If government is truly (as porported) a reflection of the collective will, what are the policies saying about the priorities of any given society? If the US democratic system works as it is said to work, George Bush didn't get any power in a vacuum. His values and priorities reflected the values and priorities of the majority.

Meanwhile, in any society, US or not, the first thing and most important thing we can control is our own way of existing in the world. We can use these larger social issues as a distraction for what needs to be done right now - or we can realize that the small things we might do as individuals will finally reflect in a larger sense.

Depending on what you believe our purpose in living might be, your actions or lack of actions will reflect that. If you believe as I do, that we are all responsible for alleviating suffering wherever we find it, actions will reflect that, too.

So it's really rather simple. Feed a homeless person. Give a few bucks when you can without attaching to the outcome. If that person uses it for something we might not approve of, that's not for us to decide. Detach from what happens beyond the immediate action.

Listen to a homeless person. Understand and realize his or her common humanity. They are just like you and me. We are just like them.

Acknowledge his or her humanity. Be kind. It seems that homeless people become objectified and "othered" to an extent that they don't seem quite real.

When all is said and done, Jesus was right. What we do to and with each other is a reflection of who we are. When we do to Others, we do to ourselves.

That's my two cents.

What's yours?



heartinsanfrancisco said...

Your points are well taken, especially the reminder that we must detach from our giving because what the recipient chooses to do with it is not our concern. To insist that our contribution be used as WE see fit is not true giving, it's a business transaction.

It seems so simple to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Why are we not better at doing so?

Girlplustwo said...

all of this is making me cry. I just said as much over at C's.

thank you.

Janet said...

Homelessness is everywhere. I have never seen it quite as pervasive as it is in San Francisco, but still. Everywhere.

I have seen a few stories in my local paper in the past, profiling homeless folks and giving their history. It's true: we're all the same, but for circumstance and bad luck. What to do, though? Since I started reading blogs (and found jen, in particular) I view homelessness through a different lens. I open my wallet, give what I can. It's not enough though, is it? It's never enough.

painted maypole said...

we live in a society where it's about taking care of yourself, and possibly your loved ones. And so that other person on the street? he's someone else's problem. His own problem, maybe his family's, not mine of the governments (that's MY tax dollers, which should be going to help ME, of course). that's how it feels to me, anyhow.

i remember the first time I heard about giving money to someone and not judging how they used it, it seemed like such a radical idea. I really try to do that now.

S said...

i don't think your perspective contradicts the others floating around today -- i think it complements them.

and i'm glad to read this. thank you. you are, as usual, wise and direct.

how would you feel if jen linked back to this from my piece of today, so that we have these thoughtful posts represented in one place -- defiantmuse's AND yours? or, you could link from this post to mine at jen's place? let me know.

Anonymous said...

I'm torn about the issue, quite honestly. Having come at it from a treatment perspective, I just cannot be cofortable with hte idea that I'm likely supplying money for a drug habit, contributing to the person's self-destruction. Since mental illness and addiction are such hugee components of homelessness (and I know ther are exceptions), I feel like the efforts need to go toward providing treatment, food, shelter, vocational training and the like.

thailandchani said...

S, I think that is so important. We can't make judgments about other people's choices that way. We all have our own paths. Karma.


Jen, you're welcome.


Janet, the only true change will come with a cultural shift. On the other hand, the cultural shift won't occur unless we start helping each other, one by one.

My opinion anyway :)


PM, you've hit one of the core issues I have with this culture. It's time to evolve beyond that. Otherwise, we all go down together anyway.


SM, I don't think my links will help. This has become a very low traffic site and I can't seem to fix it.


Citizen, I would agree.. as long as that treatment is not juvenilizing. It needs to be respectful of individual choices. Many times those choices are legitimate, even when it may not look like it to the mainstream. Case by case is all I can think of that will work. Meanwhile, we all still have to help as we can.

None of us are immune. Not in a culture like this one.


Anonymous said...

Despite having spent some time working with the homeless, I find myself unable to truly define or describe it or the people affected by it.

Some are homeless by choice, although there are times when nearly all of this type would rather not be homeless.

Some are homeless by unfortunate circumstance and are easy to assist.

Others are too belligerent or addicted to ever be anything but homeless. These are the types we ought to simply let be while we assist those who accept the assistance they need and require.

my two cents.

Maithri said...

A resounding Amen to these words.

I think of Paul Simons beautiful song...

"And as I watch the drops of rain
weave their weary paths and die...
I know that I am like the rain...
There before the grace of you,

Go I."

Love and deep peace,


Maria said...

Living close to NYC, homelessness is on every street corner and every doorway. It's so sad. Every morning and afternoon, my heart is torn into so many different pieces.

What do I do? What can I do?

I offer assistance when I can preferring to buy food that offer money.

The sad part, is every day there are new faces. I've seen homelessness from the very young to the very old and everything in between. How can this be possible in a country with so many resources? I will never understand.

My prayers are with them and I wish their was more I can do.


Lex said...

Well said and this is the second time I've read something like this today.

This helps reconcile yet another statement that was lost on me in church: What you do to the least of these, you do also to Me. I guess Jesus got that we aren't separate, even if the church doesn't always.

Angela said...

A beautiful reminder, Chani. The picture speaks volumes, as do your words. I'm sure that I am not the only one who is not doing as much as she could. It's good to be reminded not to forget.

thailandchani said...

Sauerkraut, I know what you mean. Some are too belligerent.. but that doesn't mean we don't still have an obligation to help them.


Maithri, that's a wonderful quote. We all live by each other's grace to a certain degree.


M, it happens here because of an unstable culture with some pretty screwy values.

You are doing good. If we all do it in a way that feels right for us.. that's all it takes. If you are willing to buy them food, perhaps one day you can sit down and have lunch *with* them.

Being denied human contact because of "otherness" is soul-crushing.. and they go through it every. single. day.


Lex, definitely. I do think Jesus had it right. That's what I've gotten by studying Christianity in its rawest form - before the religion was coopted as a tool to support western culture.

Christianity is an absolutely lovely religion.. with so many good points.

Jesus was quite a Buddhist.. for not being a Buddhist anyway! :)


thailandchani said...

Angela, none of us are doing as much as we can.. but as long as we're doing something, I call it good. :)


we_be_toys said...

That's a pretty hefty two cents! Ditto.

Chanda (aka Bea) said...

I think a substancial portion of the homeless population are the product of our very broken mental health system. Talk about tax dollars not going to the right places. Even here, they are getting ready to close the only state run mental facility in the area. What are they planning to do with all those folks, some who have been there for years? A paltry few will get transfered to the new facility, when and if it is finished. More than likely many will just be discharged. Not sick enough to stay, not healthy enough to manage. So many will fall through the cracks and end up on the streets.

I don't really have a solution, or a point. I try to help in small ways, usually in the form of money when I see someone out on the road.

I think it is fear that keeps a lot of people from trying to help. Fear of the homeless person themselves, and a deeper fear of looking into the face of an unthinkable life, and knowing it's not out of the realm of possibility.

Carla said...

Beautifully said. We all can make a difference in our own little way and little ways added together create something big. Thanks for the inspiration.

Defiantmuse said...

when I worked at the drop-in center back in 2001 I definitely decided then not to question what the money was used for....b/c having spent time with the kids on the street I knew it wasn't going to food or clothing. But I tried very hard not to judge that. I'd kick down a dollar or two here or there....mostly I felt like I was doing my part with where I worked and the kids I would let into my home....but as the years have passed I find myself becoming more jaded and I notice the need to really break that down b/c it's not what I want to teach my daughter....I want her to feel as passionately about helping people as I did (and hope I can find my way back to)....

thailandchani said...

We-be, if nothing else, I do have a big mouth! :)


Bea, that is definitely a larger part of the issue. Reagan started it here in CA - and it has metastasized from there. It is just more evidence of the brutality of the way of life that is chosen by many people here.


Carla, as an old friend used to say "We all do the work our own way" ... and it IS all good! The mustard seed and all that. :)


Defiantmuse, I often think of the old saw about "not letting the left hand know what the right is doing." Put the effort out there and it will go where it is supposed to go.

In the end, none of us are qualified to judge others. When we become arahants.. perhaps.. but then we won't want to.

I still have to catch myself for that all the time. It feels so natural to judge.


Brandi Reynolds said...

you know what royally pisses me off?? when I see someone who is homeless yet still has the heart to try to care not only for themselves but for an animal while my two (rescued) dogs more than likely (statistically) came to me because someone who was perfectly able just didn't give a shit.

sorry I'm emotinal today and that photo touched a nerve. You write elegantly and truthfully. I am glad you addressed this issue.

RKK said...

Great post, Chani.

By being attached to the use of what I give, that makes the love I am trying to show conditional.

Anonymous said...

No argument withyou on that - I fully believe in respecting the autonomy of those I treat. (But my Lord, what happened to my typing on my earlier comment?)

Olivia said...


I think this post is important because homelessness is something that those of us with homes think about too little (I know I do) and perhaps do even less (I'm speaking for myself).

One thing I heard recently on the radio by Rabbi Schmuley is that he always gives to homeless people because the money itself is not the main point, but the way of giving in that he (1) acknowledges the person and (2) validates their dignity. That is what he wants to give to them and he doesn't worry about the money, as far as where it goes. That resonated with me and I decided to do this myself.

And since then I've forgotten about it, as it is so easy to do when we are comfortable.

Thank you for reminding me of life beyond my comfort zone and my life of little selfishnesses.

Love and peace,


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