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

People make a difference

The significant majority of the news is about what is not working in the world. What we focus on far too less is what is working well. People make the difference. People can overcome bad structure and even governments.

We see it first hand during disasters when people help those who have lost their homes and loved ones. But, it also happens everyday in the normal course of living.

We see it in helping homeless families climb a ladder out of poverty and into sustainable housing. We see it as someone delivers meals to shut-ins and speaks with them about their day.

We see it when people volunteer to read or tutor kids who are failing behind. Or, as my wife says just give them a soft place to land. This also helps the teacher who may not have the benefit of a teaching assistant.

We see it in the people who greet and speak with customer service people in stores or on the phone. We see it in the many donation drives for coats, school supplies or food. We see it in the countless volunteer coaches, choir leaders, scout leaders and school leaders.

We see it in people who listen to the point of view of others. A Black man said he was able to get KKK members to give up their robes and change their ways by listening first and then asking questions. Our friend Jill has written recently about the loss of civility. We need to follow these examples and practice it more.

A famous person once said the only way to change the world is one person at a time. That has always been the case. So, let’s embrace civility and celebrate what is good about it. And, please remember, kindness is not a weakness.

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.

 

Happy Easter, too

While I did not grow up Catholic, my best friend did. So, one of our rituals that lasted about ten years was going to midnight mass on Christmas Eve. One of the traditions of that mass was the Father would also wish Happy Easter, as he knew he would not see more than a few parishioners until next Christmas.

While fewer people are church goers than before and some check the box “none” when surveyed, Christmas remains an important holiday for the promise it brings. Whether you believe that Jesus is the son of God, there was a man by this name who walked the earth and spoke to gatherings of people of all sizes. He reminded us of four key themes among his many parables and lessons. And, these themes can be found in other religious texts.

– Treat others like you want to be treated.

– Help people less fortunate than you.

– Recognize each of us is imperfect.

– Forgive those who trespass against us.

To me, if we live our lives doing our best to remember these four things, Jesus’ words will help us be better people. And, if enough of us do this, the world just might be a better place.

 

Hillbilly Elegy – Stabilizing Influences Matter

I recently completed the best selling non-fiction book by J.D. Vance called “Hillbilly Elegy.” Briefly, Vance tells the story of his roots in the Kentucky hills and how his grandparents traversed with others into Ohio to work in various manufacturing jobs. While that migration helped a great deal, many were not successful or plateaued because of lack of opportunity, lack of money for a college education and lack of consistent support.

Vance eventually became an attorney graduating from Yale law school, but he was very much the exception. Why? He attests it is primarily due to three stabilizing influences in his life, the first and most important of which, was his grandmother. HIs mother was very unstable with continual drug problems and multiple husbands and boyfriends. When Vance and his sister tried to live with his mother, far more often than not, it was a chaotic and verbally abusive setting which caused his grades, attendance, and attitude to plummet.

He lived with his grandmother (and grandfather while he was alive) off and on and frequently visited when he did not. Vance says when he chose to live with his grandmother full-time when entering the 10th grade, he finally had the stabilizing influence and support he needed. He notes his grades and attitude improved, along with his desire and a safe place to study. Mind you, his grandmother was not perfect and cursed like a sailor, but she made sure he had good friends, encouraged him to get a part-time job and said he was capable of going to college.

The second influence he discovered when he decided he was not mentally ready to go to college after being accepted. He joined the Marines. Vance said clearly the Marines taught him how to be responsible and accountable. They also taught him how to be an adult by helping him set up a checking account, mentoring him to stay away from predatory loans and how to budget and save. His grandmother hated that he joined the Marines, but even she saw the difference it made in him. So, by the time he went to Ohio State University and later Yale Law school, he was more mature and ready to learn and do what it takes to study.

The third stabilizing influence was his wife, whom he met at law school. A key example is the influence she had on how he reacted to negative news or arguments. Throughout the book, he notes that hillbilly pride in family would cause him to defend his honor at the smallest sleight. His wife shared that he need not react to someone, even her, so severely to jerk her head off if there was a personal affront. She convinced him, even when she disagreed with him, she was still on his side. This supportive love and calming demeanor had an impact and made him a better person. He noted that family meals at his wife’s home were civil and interesting.

We all need stabilizing influences in our life, no matter where we are born. Yet, far too many Americans and citizens of other countries, do not have any or very few stabilizing influences. In America, where and to whom you are born matters more than it used to, in getting ahead. America has plummeted in global rankings in getting ahead. In my volunteer work with homeless working families, many of the children only have a mother to rely on. And, without a roof over their heads, the stability of a safe place to live, much less study, is compromised. By breaking the cycle of homelessness, a child has a better chance of avoiding homelessness as an adult.

Vance clearly states if he did not have the support and stability of his grandmother, he would not have ever gone to college and may have been a high school drop out. Two present and interested parents is far more the ideal, but with such a high divorce rate, with so many out-of-wedlock births, and with the temptations to drink or do drugs as an outlet when life gets tougher than you are prepared to deal with, that ideal may not be attainable for many. So, he argues that a childcare support system designed to serve kids in troubled situations needs to be flexible enough to confirm where those stabilizing influences are for that child. He had to fight to live with his grandmother rather than his mother and living with his father was not fruitful.

I encourage you to read this book which offers through example, what real and imperfect people are going through. It may challenge preconceived notions, which is always a good thing, in my view. It did mine.

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.

The working homeless I see

With holiday season upon us, I wanted to remind folks that the holidays can overshadow many folks who are doing so much with so little. I volunteer to help with working homeless families as they climb a ladder back to self-sufficiency. We help them along the way, but they are the ones who must climb the rungs of the ladder.

When I speak to groups of people about the folks we help, whether it is a Sunday school class, church service, United Way function, business group or company community relations effort, the audience is always surprised when I say our homeless families work. I usually let that sink in before proceeding.

In fact, 85% – 95% of our families are parented by a single working mother, the fastest growing population of homeless people nationwide. And, about a third of those mothers are escaping a domestic violence situation. Think about that for a second. A woman and family has the additional trauma of being homeless on top of the physical and mental abuse. Our social workers have a process they use with our families called Trauma Informed Care. They understand what the mother and family is going through, while still helping them be more accountable.

Our families are homeless because of reduced hours, a lost job from several, a healthcare crisis, a car issue, daycare costs or because of the domestic violence issues noted above. We help our families by providing temporary shelter for about 60 – 90 days as they get their sea legs underneath them. Then, we help them move to an apartment where we subsidize the rent with the family paying 30% of their income toward rent and utilities. We pair them with a clinical social worker and, if they desire, a Hope Team which is a group of one or more couples that help mentor the family.

Our families exit our program, on average, after twenty-one months with 80% – 90% being self-sufficient, meaning they no longer need our subsidy. And, we measure success after they leave, so we know that 80% – 90% of the families who left housed are still housed on their own after two years of leaving our program. This shows that people need a helping hand to get back on their feet, but truly want to be on their own. I mention this as there are some in our country that believe everyone needing help is a malingerer.

My experience shatters many of those misconceptions. Here are three:

  • People in poverty are lazy. Not true. The people I work with tend to work their fannies off in one or more jobs.
  • People in poverty are less virtuous and are being punished. Not true. The people I see tend to cling to their faith and are more pious than the church members who help them. These volunteers take away more than give.
  • People in poverty are substance abusers. No more than anyone else and in fact to a lesser degree. The State of Florida drug tested welfare recipients until the policy was ruled unconstitutional. The data from this short lived process revealed that people on welfare had less than 1/2 the rate of substance abuse than general society’s rate.

Poverty is merely the lack of money, period.

So, as we celebrate Christmas and other holidays, let’s remember that many are not so lucky. They are doing the best they can. The hole is deep, but they can climb out of it, with a little help. Let’s help them climb the ladder.