In his book “Toxic Charity,” Bob Lupton writes from experience that charity should be reserved for true emergencies*. When a person loses his home (or is about to) due to sudden natural or economic causes, then people stepping in to help is definitely in order. Yet, after the emergency subsides, the more efficacious way to help people should change. We definitely should help people, but do our best not to do for them what they can do themselves.
I am involved as a volunteer with an agency that helps homeless families. We believe in empowering our homeless families—working in partnership with them to secure safe and stable housing and to create lasting change. These are things we know are necessary to break the cycle of generational poverty and become self-sufficient. When families have permanent housing, strong personal relationships and motivation to change, families will have the best chance to move out of a life of poverty and into a life of self-sufficiency.
Our families are working families—people you meet when you go to your doctor’s office or your child’s school, etc. Many have lost their homes due to a reduction in work hours, a medical crisis, domestic violence or some other financial or social setback. Our families were living paycheck to paycheck and with one small change, their world was turned upside down.
To access the full support of our agency, our families have to do their part. Families attend classes to learn better budgeting and financial skills, and they meet weekly with a social worker who challenges and encourages them to make better decisions. Also, after saving for a down payment, they work with a housing specialist to obtain affordable permanent housing. Families also receive supportive services from volunteer mentoring teams, which we call “Hope Teams.” Our model is simple—to help homeless families help themselves.
To be the best stewards of our families, funders and volunteers, we constantly evaluate our model to ensure that we are creating lasting and permanent change in the lives of the families we serve. In our last fiscal year, 91% of our families were self-sufficient after completing the housing part of our program. And, we just completed an exhaustive measurement exercise to learn that 88% of the families that exited our program into housing have sustained their housing on their own after three, six, twelve and twenty-four months milestones.
Our staff and Board of Directors know this model serves our clients in a respectful and effective manner—and we have the outcomes to prove it. The key takeaways are to help people climb the ladder, but not climb it for them. And, entrust the people closest to the client figure out the how to tweak or improve the model. Finally, measure outcomes. It is important to use your funders’ dollars judiciously and your volunteers’ time and efforts wisely. This stewardship is essential to success for our families.