Helping people climb a ladder – a perspective

The following is an edited version of a comment on Hugh Curtler’s (a retired college professor of philosophy) post regarding whether we should help people in need or let them fend for themselves. I provide a link below to his post. I am going to cite the work a charity I used to be a part of that builds off the book “Toxic Charity,” written by a minister who lived with the disenfranchised people he sought to help. His name is Robert Lupton.

Lupton’s thesis is simple: true charity should focus on emergency or short term needs. What he argued for to help others long term and we did (and still do) is help people climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. That should be the goal. An easy example is he would advocate for food and clothing co-ops rather than giving the food and clothes away. People love a bargain, so let them maintain their dignity while they get discounted help. This dignity thing is crucial – people would rather not have to ask for help.

Note, we cannot push people up the ladder. They must climb it.  A social worker I have advocated with used to say “we walk side by side with our clients.” The folks we helped are homeless working families. We had two keys – they received a subsidy for rent based on their ability to pay, but they had to plan, budget, get financially educated working with a social worker and attending required training programs. Our homeless clients had to be responsible for rent and utilities up to 30% of their income, which is threshold for housing risk. Another key is we measured success. Success to us is being housed on their own without help after two  years.

As a community and country, we need to better identify what we mean by success in our help for people in need. Also, are things like healthcare a right? Is food on the table a right? Is a roof over the head a right? What we need is better measurement of what we spend and how it helps. It actually is cheaper to provide housing to chronic homeless and partially-subsidized housing to those who are more acutely homeless (due to loss of job, reduction in hours,  loss of healthcare, problems with car, predatory lending on a car, etc.) than let them go to the ER or commit petty crimes and be jailed. People should know all homeless are not alike, so the remedies to help need to vary.

My former party likes to argue off the extreme anecdotes – the significant majority of people do not cheat the system, but the perceived thinking of such is much higher in Republican ranks. When I have spoken to church groups, chamber groups, rotary clubs, United Way campaigns, etc., I come across this bias which is firmly believed. Just last month, the US president announced curtailing a rule on food stamps which will put 3 million people at risk, as one man was able to purposefully game the system. Yes, there is a small percentage of folks that do that, but the significant majority do not.

What people like David Brooks, a conservative pundit, tout is a dialogue on what kind of country do we wish to be? Our economy is a fettered capitalist model, with socialist underpinnings to help people in need and keep people out of poverty. What is the right balance? Is it better to pay a much higher minimum wage or have a higher earned income tax credit, e.g. Is it better to have a Medicare for All system, subsidize those in need or have a free market system only? A factor in this decision is many employers now employ a larger part-time or contractual workforce (the gig economy) to forego having to provide benefits. This is especially true in retail and restaurant industries.

At the end of the day, Gandhi said it best – a community’s greatness is measured in how it takes care of its less fortunate. With so great a disparity in the haves/ have nots in our country, I can tell you we are out of whack as our middle class has declined and far more of them fell into a paycheck-to-paycheck existence. Ironically, even in the age of Trump promises, we have many people who do not realize they are voting against their economic interests. Doing away with the ACA and not expanding Medicaid are very harmful to rural areas, e.g.

So, I agree with Gandhi, Lupton, and Brooks that we need to help people, but decide what is the best way. We should measure things and adjust them when they get out of whack. It is hard to fix what you do not measure. The group I was involved with would alter its model, if the numbers showed less success than hoped. What I do know is over 80% of the people we helped are still housed on their own after two years of leaving the program. In other words, they live without a subsidy.

Finally, what we need most is for politicians to check their tribal egos at the door when they enter the room. Having been a member of both parties, each party has some good ideas, but both have some bad ones, too. I do not care what a person’s party preference is or if he or she is more conservative or liberal than me  (I am fiscally conservative and socially progressive), we need to use facts and data to make informed choices. And, continue to measure the results making modifications, if needed.

Dilemma

A letter from a teenager whose family is no longer homeless

The following letter was read at a recent Board meeting of our agency that helps homeless families. Breaking the cycle of homelessness for this family, reduces greatly the risk that homelessness will impact the children as adults.

Dear Board members,

My name is xxxx. I am 16 years old, in the 11th grade at yyyyy High School. I am writing this letter to thank you once again for all that you have done for my family, and helping us with a place to live. Over the past few years, I have been to 4 different high schools due to living with different people because of mother’s situation. I feel more secure now that my family is in a stable home. And, I can spend the next two years spending time with my mom & little brother before I graduate and go off into the Air Force. Thank you for making that happen for us.

Sincerely,

xxxxx

Can you imagine trying to be a normal teenager, when you worry about a roof over your head and anguish over your and your mother’s situation? At the meeting I also shared a story about one of our homeless fathers. His son has graduated with a Master’s degree and is now teaching school. These kids can be afforded opportunity for success if we can help their family gain stability.

The reason I highlight these two stories is when I speak about helping our homeless family clients, it is not unusual for a few to be obstinate in their belief that the parents are just lazy or drug addicts. Even when I say our parents have jobs, sometimes more than one, and the propensity for drug use among homeless people has no greater propensity than that of housed people, that is discounted or not believed. But, the one thing I can get these more obstinate folks to agree with me on is the kids did not choose to be homeless, so let’s help them.

Let’s help the parents and their families. But, in so doing, let’s help the kids. Breaking the cycle of homelessness for the next generation also helps the community.

 

Christmas in July – a better time to help

Having worked with several human services agencies as both a volunteer and Board member, one of the challenges is the timing of cash flow and the need for more of it. Many agencies are funded through a combination of federal, state and local money and donations from the faith community, foundations, businesses and individuals.

During the holiday season, these agencies are blessed with an inflow of giving that would honor Christmas or Hanukkah. Those donations are greatly appreciated and are used judiciously throughout the year. But, the time of greatest need is during the summer months, when the kids are off from school.

Much of my effort has been around helping homeless families climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. The families we help work, sometimes more than one job, but cannot make ends meet or an event has caused them to lose their home. The event could be the breakdown of a car, significant healthcare expenses, reduction in hours at work or the loss of a job.

During the summer months, the working parent(s) are finding and paying for ways to look after children. Also, their hours are cut back due to people being on vacation and shopping less. Or, they work in the school system and are not paid during the summer months. Yes, we have helped teachers and teacher assistants who are homeless.

Rather than waiting to give in December, look into places you normally give and donate during the summer months. Whether it is your money, clothing, books, goods or time, the donation will be greatly appreciated. In fact, small groups of people often can perform duties – stuffing envelopes, setting up crafts, providing day care, etc. that will be beneficial. Look at each organization’s website and see the best way to volunteer.

I have witnessed some wonderful organizations who take their stewardship roles very seriously. They do more with less, but sometimes it is hard. It should not have to be this hard. Thank you in advance for your consideration of helping them make it through.

Some voices from real people in need

“I work. I have always worked, but need to find another job where the hours are more predictable, so I can be there for my kids, attend school events, help them with their homework.” – a single homeless mother, now housed with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“They have cut my hours at work, so I need to find a second job, so that I can feed my kids and pay rent.” – a single homeless mother, now housed with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“Two professionals helping me were talking about me, in front of me, as if I could not understand them. Since I did not know middle class English, people would not ask for my opinion. I grew up a migrant worker picking crops. I did not know I did not speak middle class English.” – a former homeless person, who is now a Ph.D. helping people in need.

“People who have never lived in poverty, do not know what it is like to have to decide on whether to eat or pay rent. They say why don’t you get a job? I have a job. I have more than one and I work hard.” – a homeless father, now housed with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“My husband is no longer a part of the picture. We are on our own doing the best we can, but it is hard with only person working.” – a domestic violence victim and homeless mother, now housed with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“I never thought it could happen to us. We both have college degrees, but when my wife was also laid off, we had to come here and get help. We did not know how.” – a father of a homeless family who is now housed with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“When your poor, you feel like you do not belong. How do you think a kid feels when she goes to school on picture day and her envelope is empty? Or, at the book fair, when the teacher compliments the person in front of her on the book they chose and skips over her.” – a former homeless person who is now a Ph.D. helping people in need.

“I made a bad decision when I was a teenager and now have a criminal record. Can you help me get considered for this job? I just need an opportunity to tell my story.” – a single homeless mother now in housing with a temporary rent-subsidy.

“I am embarrassed that I cannot keep a roof over my kids’ heads. They say they understand, but it is not fair that they have to.” – a single homeless father living out of his van with his two kids.

“We did not know this until later, but our daughter was volunteering at a food bank helping people in need. Mind you, we live in a tent in a homeless village, but she was volunteering to help others after school.” – a homeless family, who is now housed with a temporary rent subsidy.

We need to walk in other people’s shoes to understand why they are in poverty. It is not laziness, as the homeless people I see work their fannies off.  It is not due to lack of virtue, as the people I see are more devout than others as their faith is all they have. It is mostly not due to substance abuse, as the homeless have no greater degree of substance abuse than the general population. Poverty is the lack of money. This lens is critical. Let’s understand this and help people climb ladders to self-sufficiency.

Why is there not a poverty matchmaker show?

My wife likes to watch the millionaire matchmaker show from time to time. This show has a strong-willed female matchmaker working with some strong-willed male millionaires to find them a significant other. More often than not, the clients hold high opinions of themselves and feel anyone should be lucky to have them. For many that is fine, but the show tends to have more than its fair share of arrogant men.

Yet, as I thought of this show, I asked my wife why is there not a show to make matches for people in need. In other words, why is there not a poverty matchmaker show? I am being facetious, as people like to watch people with money whether it is houses of the rich and famous or wives of some rich suburb. So, very few people would want to watch what too many Americans look like these days, people in need.

So, rather than a show, maybe we could have a matchmaking service where people in need could match up with someone who is also in need, pooling their resources. They need not necessarily get married, but could co-habitate to share expenses via a roommate agreement. The matchmaker would make sure that people are vetted to minimize any problems.

With more adult Americans single than married as of a survey announced this week, the sharing of expenses with some mutual understanding may help the two singles or heads of household make it together. This could be a temporary arrangement until both families can get back on their feet. And, since this is a platonic arrangement, the head of families could be of the same gender.

At the agency I volunteer with, we help homeless families get back on their feet. If needed, we shelter them in temporary housing where they have a bedroom and bath, but share kitchens in a communal arrangement. Once they have saved enough and get their sea legs beneath them, they move into their own apartment paying a subsidized rent. All of this is based on the concept that they are assigned a social worker to help them work through issues. Eventually, the families exit the program when they can sustain themselves and over 86% remain housed after two years of exit.

So, the matchmaking concept could work, although it would make for less exciting TV. Maybe we could assign one social worker to the co-habitated families. What are your thoughts? Am I all wet?

The Anti-Charity Charity

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.