The Stories we tell Ourselves about Youth Homelessness

The other morning at the end of a swim practice I was chatting with some fellow swimmers about a new grant we had received to explore policy and poverty. An older gentleman I hadn’t talked with before was sitting nearby and overheard our conversation. He piped up:

“My wife and I used to run drop-in for homeless youth on weekends. Just before Christmas I was surprised when no one showed up. We went out to the streets and no one was there either. They had all gone home for Christmas. Makes you wonder…”

The clear allusion being made was that street-involved youth aren’t in fact homeless, but rather choose not to be at home. I highlighted to him research that shows that regardless of where choice to exit home lies (ie. kicked out or fleeing), over 70% of homeless youth identify abuse in the family home as the cause of their homelessness.

His response: “Is the abuse real or imagined? I worked in social services for over 40 years.”

It struck me that this anecdote was a story that he had at the tip of his tongue, and was happy to intrude on a stranger’s conversation to share. It obviously meant a lot to him to have this narrative that homeless youth are just run-aways, ne’er-do-wells, and not so much in need of housing as we might presume. I suspect that we weren’t the first with whom he had shared this anecdote, and it wasn’t the first time he used his “expertise” from in the sector to add clout to the premise.

In a broader sense, this narrative of homeless youth as “bad kids” is a popular and a common one. It serves to relieve a sense of guilt we feel when youth, who seem more vulnerable (innocent? fragile?), are part of the experience of homelessness. This story I’m sure gets perpetuated in middle-class households across our communities. Yet, this narrative of “street punks” goes directly against research that shows that most are grappling with a difficult home life, and few, for example, grapple with substance use prior to their experience of homelessness. Of course youth who have left an abusive home environment might choose to go home for Christmas. Or maybe because it was Chritsmas, a lot of other places had activities that youth were choosing to go to instead.

Or maybe they just didn’t want to hang out with this asshole anymore on weekends.

Don’t Criminalize Homelessness; Do Criminalize Low Standards

205736624_153dbd3d20_bThe criminalization of homelessness is a scourge of societies across the globe. The general thought behind it goes something like this: People and/or their behaviours are anti-social and/or bad for our neighbourhood(s), therefore we will make criminal certain acts that we deem to be unwanted. This at face value makes sense, as it aligns with some of the core tenants of a justice system (ie. to get along as a society we need to enforce certain standards of behaviour and interaction), but let’s take a quick look at how this plays out in practice.

1) Making Survival Criminal

The overwhelming majority of people experiencing homelessness live in abject poverty, for example in Ontario most surviving on Ontario Works receive approximately $7,600 per year. With insufficient income to meet the most basic of needs, people turn to alternative means to supplement their income. This can include such activities as survival sex work or panhandling. Making these behaviours illegal then becomes a downstream response that does not alter the root issue of insufficient income. The punishment of these activities, such as ticketing those panhandling, rather adds layers of marginalization, making it more difficult for people to subsequently exit poverty and homelessness.

“Solutions” to panhandling such as this one out of Albuquerque are only band-aids or worse unless they address the root issue of inadequate income.

2) Punished for Basic Functions

People need to go to the bathroom, shower, and be intimate. Those who are without a home often have nowhere else to perform these functions but in the public sphere. This article from New York states it well, “unforgiving policies against low-level violations pushes people into the criminal justice system” Citing someone for public nudity or public urination who is trying their best to relieve themselves out of sight, but who has no other option, is nothing other than cruel.

3) Chased Away

The cruelest and most insidious of policies are those that are simply intended to drive away certain people from certain communities. This can be as basic as removing benches from public spaces, to laws that criminalize such things as lying down on a sidewalk (see: Tampa and Honolulu Fort Lauderdale makes it really awfully obvious what they are going for in making it illegal to have personal possessions on public property. If you want to get really angry, read this article about NYPD police taking pictures of “quality-of-life offenses” like being homeless in public

These particular laws are the most cruel as they are based on nothing other than protecting the public from seeing someone in poverty. There is no harm being committed, and the result is absolutely nothing other than perhaps forcing people to move elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is exactly the goal. It is completely dehumanizing, heartless, and short-sighted.

However, with all that said, I would like to go out on a limb and suggest that I do support some homelessness-related laws that have been deemed by others as anti-homeless.

There has been much discussion about laws around providing food to people experiencing homelessness. This article from Mother Jones subtly highlights that there are differences in laws around public food sharing: Some laws are explicit about not providing food to to anyone in any way in public, whereas others stipulate criteria around food sharing safety. Most Canadian cities, with a strong public health system, fall under the latter. I believe that just because people are experiencing homelessness, it does not mean they should be provided with food that does not meet public food safety criteria. Now, I would note that this is said in the Canadian context where we don’t have individuals actually starving to death. My own research has shown that there is actually not a food access issue in London around poverty, but rather a food quality issue (as long as one is not facing mobility issues).

So, I believe that there should be laws against public sharing of food that does not meet food preparation and sharing safety criteria. If people are truly passionate about providing food to those experiencing poverty, then they can follow the simple criteria required to do so safely, or volunteer with an organization already doing so. Ignoring these standards is actually in itself dehumanizing.

I would make the same assertion around housing standards. Whenever there is a crisis in London that leads to people being very publicly de-housed, I see suggestions of solutions like tiny homes, tent cities, or shipping containers. When someone dies in a fire in substandard housing, some say that at least this housing is better than shelters or the street. Again, I believe that this perspective is based on the flawed logic that the housing standards that are good for me are perhaps too good for others. Instead, I believe that we have the resources in Canada to provide safe and adequate housing to all. We DO NOT want to return to the days of the slums and say that this is good enough for us (or for others, as the case may be). Rather, we need the political will to put the resources we have to work in order to provide adequate housing that is: safe, affordable, permanent, supported as needed, and of the individual’s choice.

This leads to the current, and possibly most controversial, concern: urban camping.

2929117132_8de2395d05_bAbbotsford, BC is in the midst of a court case where the B.C./Yukon Association of Drug War Survivors or fighting for the right of people experiencing homelessness to camp in public spaces. In this article Tim Richter of the Canadian Alliance to End Homelessness captures well the tension of the issue. When it comes to the goal of ending homelessness, meaning helping people find home, a tent meets little to none of the criteria for home. In fact, a tent might be a dangerous, even harmful place for someone to live, even temporarily.

Now, this issue is a little more complex because unlike the food issue, the lack of housing alternatives is more of an immediate crisis with many people having simply no other option in the moment. However, I would again highlight that we should not settle for inadequate because our system is currently poorly funded and/or designed. Rather, we should create a context where no one has to choose urban camping as an option. I don’t believe that we should fine homeless people in the interim, but neither should we surrender to unsafe housing alternatives.

To summarize, I don’t think that we should criminalize people experiencing homelessness for their homelessness. However, I do think we should criminalize low standards that would put people who are homeless at risk. Those experiencing homelessness deserve the same right to safety as those with a home. I suspect that we surrender standards when we lose the vision and belief that we can end homelessness for all.

Housing First Series

In my previous post I started to unpack some of the intricacies of housing first. What I hope this highlighted was that although housing first is an overall effective model, there is still some work to do in terms of refining what it means for sub-populations of people experiencing homelessness. So, over the next several weeks I want to start to unpack what we know and what we don’t know about Housing First for the following populations:

  1. Those with mental health challenges;
  2. Youth;
  3. The chronically homeless;
  4. Those with addictions;
  5. Aboriginal peoples;
  6. Older adults;
  7. Those leaving the justice system;
  8. Families;
  9. Women.

I have purposely ordered these in terms of those populations where we have the most work to guide us to date, to those where we have the least. In each post I will explore what we already know in terms of best practices for housing first, and what we need to know more about.

Housing First

7 Tough Questions for Housing First

London-20111028-00029Housing First has now been lauded far and wide as the most effective solution to homelessness in developed nations. This model focuses on rapidly moving people into independent and permanent housing regardless of where they are in their own personal journey. This in contrast with past models that required people to be at a certain phase of recovery, be accessing treatment for mental health challenges, or move through a step-wise process of increased independence. Research has now demonstrated that the best outcomes are grounded in access to housing. However, there are a number of tough questions that have been raised in this model that I would like to address in this post.

1) Does Housing First put women second?

Last year ‘Homes 4 Women’ released a critical white paper titled “Housing First, Women Second?” The paper highlights the lack of a gendered approach taken at the national level of implementing Housing First priority for project funding. With this there is a risk that best practices around women’s homelessness, particularly that take into consideration the ubiquitousness of violence in women’s experiences, will be lost. We know that women’s and men’s experiences are not the same, and this paper highlights important differences such as the more hidden nature of women’s chronic homelessness.

So does Housing First put women second? I would suggest that only if we let it. The core principal of housing as the most important foundation for ending homelessness holds true across gender lines. However, where this will play out is within program implementation. The needs of women will be secondary if the programs themselves do not include the decades worth of best practices already developed. It is important to note that Housing First is inclusive of different types of housing, with the concept of ‘independent’ living being more fluidly defined. Secondly, it is housing with support, and these supports can vary as well. Therefore, Housing First won’t inherently put the unique needs of homeless women second as long as we continue to bring those needs to the forefront.

2) Isn’t independent housing dangerous for women recently leaving a violent partner?

This question builds closely on the previous one of women’s needs. If all Housing First programs mean a rapid move to a single, private residence, this will indeed put women leaving violence at risk. There are high rates of ex-partners finding women who have left violence, which makes the safety planning that comes with congregate living much more effective. However, Professor Stephen Gaetz highlights that there is no need to abandon transitional models that have proven effective with certain sub-populations, such as women. Indeed, researchers and leaders in the women’s movement note the lack of “Third Stage” housing, which is essentially permanent housing with supports. A Housing First model would mean maintaining second stage housing where effective, but not forgetting that third stage housing is the ultimate goal. Again, this comes down to a matter of proper implementation.

3) Why are there so many deaths in Housing First programs?

I am part of a research team evaluating the health outcomes of the first group of individuals enrolled into London CAReS. All of these individuals are those identified as chronically homeless, and the vast majority have experienced chronic addiction. In this case, when I speak of chronic addiction, I mean persistent and high use of substances, including mouth-wash addiction and significant IV drug use. We have seen a noticeable number of deaths of participants enrolled in the program. This has also been noted by workers in the sector, and raised some questions about Housing First programs in general and risk to participants.

Some of the deaths seen are those that would already be anticipated with this particular sub-population of significant substance users. However, I would hypothesize that there is another phenomenon at play as well. Many of these individuals overdose on a consistent basis during their homelessness, but this occurs in the context of an agency where other residents or staff are present. They are then taken to hospital and revived. Moving an individual who continues to use high levels of substances into a more independent living arrangement puts them at higher risk of overdosing undetected. The difficult bind is that this independent living, permanent affordable housing, is the desire of the individual. Therefore, we don’t want to deny them that, we absolutely don’t want to force people to stay in shelter long-term, but we also have to be aware of, and make the resident aware of, the risk that comes with using substances privately.

4) Isn’t the Foyer Model a better one for homeless youth?

The Foyer Model of transitional housing for homeless youth is popular in Europe, and has seen some implementation in Canada. In essence, this model is a more long-term model of transitional housing, rejecting the common 364 day limitation, that incorporates wrap-around services inclusive of education, employment, and life skills development. Arguing the Foyer Model against Housing First is where we get into the semantics of these models. If the Foyer Model is implemented with no move out date, then it is indeed permanent, independent, affordable housing with supports; it’s just a particular degree of support. If a move out date, for example 3 years, is indeed enforced, then a conversation needs to be had about rethinking programs and services to entail truly permanent housing. However, this doesn’t mean we through out the great best practices that have been developed in Europe, but rather we can work to integrate them with Housing First.

5) Sure Housing First is great, but what if there is no housing?

To either divert people from shelter or rapidly move them out of shelter requires affordable housing on hand. In communities across Ontario we face 2-20 year wait lists for social housing, and many communities have vacancy rates below 2%, disincentivizing the market to add more such housing. However, local examples show that there are innovative ways to increasing the housing stock. The first way is to take advantage of private sector housing in communities where vacancy rates mean rentals are available. In London this means a rent subsidy of approximately $200 to move an individual from the OW housing allowance of approximately $375 to $575, which puts them into average market rent. Although this investment in housing means no capital increase for the Housing Division that you would get from a new build, the $200 cost is far less than the municipality pays to keep an indvidual in shelter (approx. $1230 per month).

A second way to look at increasing affordable housing stock is innovative ways to boost the overall available stock through new builds. Also in London right now we are in the process of developing a Housing Development Corporation (HDC). This HDC will increase projected new affordable housing units from 450 to 1000 over next 10 years, without necessarily requiring further municipal investment. This is done by leveraging funding across all government levels hand-in-hand with both charitable and investment funds from the private sector. This is a sign that ambitious targets for new affordable housing are obtainable while still investing in immediate short-term solutions, such as rent supplements.

6) Can individuals with chronic addictions really stay permanently housed?

When London CAReS started enrolling the most chronically homeless in our community for permanent, independent housing, many within the sector were sceptical to say the least. These were individuals that they had tried to re-house many times, but had seen them cycle back time and again to shelter. How could London CAReS do any better? Well, time has been the test, and the majority of individuals rostered with CAReS have maintained their housing against the odds. This is proving that those with chronic addictions can remain housed, but is requires the right supports. In this case the right supports includes intensive case management, one worker per ten participants, which is costly in terms of operations, but pays big dividends across both health and social systems, and of course in terms of outcomes for the individual. Anyone who wants to be housed can be housed. (And research of 200 homeless individuals with mental health challenges in London showed that 100% desired housing.)

7) How come individuals in Housing First programs still access high levels of other services?

In anticipating the benefits of Housing First, there is a predicted decrease in use of health, social, emergency, and corrections services. The decreases have been seen in health, emergency, and corrections services, but individuals enrolled in Housing First programs still frequently use high levels of social services. For example, they may still access drop-in services and food programs on a daily basis. This continues to strain limited resources in the social service sector, but is not necessarily a bad thing. Recall that Housing First means housing with supports. What is happening here is individuals are defining what their supports are, and these are most often the services they are familiar with through their period of homelessness. If these services are working for the individual, then they are still of great value.

However, ultimately the goal would be that people would integrate into communities. In my mind this is the current fore-front of work on ending homelessness. We have been able to move people from shelter into housing, and keep them housed, but we have seen limited results in terms of then integrating people socially, and recreationally. Although having a social network of other street-involved individuals is better than an alternative of social isolation, best long-term outcomes are seen when people have a sense of belonging where they live, and have more diverse social networks. So until we are better at helping people integrate socially, we should continue to anticipate (and allow) high use of homeless services by people who are now housed.

The Charitable Impulse: Conclusion

LDN_CAReSEnding homelessness in London, Ontario serves as the best example I am aware of to illustrate the difference between charity that is reactionary and charity that is thoughtful and effective over the long-term.  In Part 5, I spoke to how our historical response to homelessness is reactionary and has led to a significant focus of resources on shelters and other services that manage people during their experience of homelessness rather than ending homelessness. Yet, there are many like myself who are driven to affect change on homelessness in our community, and I believe this is truly possible.  In fact, I believe that we can see the end of chronic homelessness in London within a decade. This will happen when we keep the outcome focus crystal clear and organize services and resources to ensure a permanent housing outcome.

London CAReS is the local agency providing for housing-focused outcomes, and is truly changing the story on homelessness in our community. Providing housing supports to the 50 most chronically homeless people in London, as well as a group with the highest police contacts, those in a veteran’s project, and a group staying in London Housing, London CAReS in a few short years has demonstrated that safe, supported, affordable housing is possible for even those with the most complex histories of mental illness, poverty, and substance use. Residents supported by London CAReS are assisted to find housing at market rates through rent supplements paid direct to landlords, and both the resident and landlord have 24/7 access to case worker support. Many of the individuals housed through CAReS were considered un-house-able by workers within the community, but this perception is being altered, and instead it is being demonstrated that any who want to be housed (which is everyone I have met, so far) can be housed with the right supports in place.

This model of housing with supports isn’t cheap. Rent supplements cost $200 per month, which means for each resident, there is $2400 less available per year to build new affordable housing units. And operating costs are high, with support provided at one worker to ten residents. However, the financial outcomes have been phenomenal. Some residents had greater than 300 emergency room visits in a year, greater than 200 police contacts in a year, and were constantly housed in jail, hospital, or shelter. As we can see from the Canadian stats on the real cost of homelessness, moving people into the safe, affordable housing they want and deserve is actually saving us hundreds or thousands of dollars per resident. More importantly, we are seeing positive outcomes around housing stability, health improvement, and reduction of service use across the board.

What does this all mean for the charitable impulse? So someone sees a person experiencing homelessness sitting outside in the cold and feels compelled to do something about it. Yes, getting the individual off the street, fed, sheltered, and clothed is a nice first step and a nice gesture. But that makes no real impact on their housing status; it simply makes their experience of homelessness more comfortable. Instead, we need to look to the evidence-based solutions that might require policy changes, re-allocation of funds, long-term investment of action, and a reinvigorated view that these ‘wicked problems’ can actually be solved. Homelessness is just one example I provide to think about the charitable impulse, but this thoughtful outcome-focused approach can serve us for other wicked problems, such as poverty, intimate partner violence, First Nations education, climate change, etc. Sometimes our own resources are best used to support those who are already expert in the area of concern and invested in long-term solutions. Perhaps we don’t need to reinvent the wheel to solve the wicked problems of our generation.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 7

Money PitLet’s look again more locally.  I recently had the privilege of joining the Board of United Way.  This has been an interesting journey, as I started as a front-line worker in a United Way funded agency, frustrated by the administrative time investment required to demonstrate outcomes to this funder, and now find myself in the position of demanding this work of our funded programs.

One of the important things I have learned is that no charity has an inherent right to limited charitable resources because of the power of its mission statement.  Take a hypothetical organization that provides clothing to people experiencing homelessness in order to assist them in obtaining employment (any similarity to existing organizations is entirely coincidental; I am simply making an illustration).  There can be a very powerful message here as employment is the only long-term solution to fully exiting poverty in our society.  This organization can receive, manage, and distribute massive amounts of quality business clothing to people in abject need.  However, if the people receiving the clothing aren’t particularly employment-ready, and actually have only a 3% employment rate post-receipt of a donation, the quality of the model is called into question.  The charity might excuse itself, saying that at least they are still giving clothing to people who need it, but is this the clothing they need?  Is this the most efficient model if we are just going to fall back on giving clothes?  And didn’t you sell your donors on making people employable?

In the hypothetical scenario provided above, I believe that two things should happen: First, the charity should be provided all the assistance they need to better achieve the outcomes of their mission statement.  Second, in the case that they are unable or unwilling to change to obtain the outcomes, I don’t think that dollars should (or likely will) go their way.  The organization might put out a plea to the public for funds, and people might wring their hands that there will be less opportunities for people who are experiencing homeless to get good jobs, but there is a false leap of logic that this organization, in this format, is actually shifting the needle in any significant way.

So, outcomes do matter.  When we have that charitable impulse, and want to help, and it’s not for the pat on the back, and with no expectation of ‘appropriate’ thanks for recipients, we can do so, and we can do it well.  This is done by being very clear about the mission that we want to achieve, understanding the complexities of the pathway to getting there, and being committed in the long-term to getting it right.  Take for example the Unity Project homeless shelter.  Like any other shelter, Unity Project provides people a safe place to stay.  However, their mission is also to transition people through housing solutions.  So, you might see a resident pushing a broom, or working at a desk at the shelter.  Reporting to a funder that “17 residents did 43 hours of broom pushing time” would be silly, but if these life skills opportunities help residents transition from emergency shelter, to transitional housing, to independent living, then the outcome has been achieved.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 5

Toronto slumHomelessness is a relatively new problem in Canada.  Pre-1970, homelessness as we know it did not exist.  There was some transience, people who rode the rails and drank, but if you were poor and situated in a community for any period of time you stayed in the slums.  These were not pretty places, but you had a roof over your head.  Through the 1970s there was a move for human rights and to enhance municipal housing standards, and the slums were shut down.  Knowing that this will mean people need a place to stay, the federal government invested heavily in social housing.  136,000 social housing units are developed to replace the slums, the most social housing we ever built in Canada at one time.

Enter the 1980s and all orders of government significantly dial back or completely stop building new social housing.  Through the ‘80s we have the rise of homelessness as we know it today, people situated in one community for an extended period of time being unable to obtain safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing.  So we have people on the streets.  The public sees this and responds.  The response is a charitable impulse, a good one, a desire to ensure that no one has to sleep rough in our communities.  So we start building shelters.  By 1990 there are 400 shelters in Canada, and by 2014 there are 1,100 shelters providing 150,000 Canadians with a place to sleep.

Homelessness is now entrenched in our communities.  A significant portion of our public dollars to address homelessness goes towards managing people while they are in an experience of homelessness, versus preventing or ending homelessness.  Don’t misunderstand me, both the intent and the function of shelters are very good; we will always need spaces of transition for those in crisis.  The problem arises when shelters become the primary response to homelessness as opposed to safe, secure, affordable, and permanent housing.  As the long-term outcomes of staying in shelter are primarily negative, if this becomes the journey for most, we can expect the kind of outcomes we are seeing in terms of chronicity, poor health, and poor social outcomes.

So herein lies the problem: We can respond to social problems in our communities in a manner that meets the immediate need, but actually makes the problem harder, overall, to address.  In responding to homelessness we have somehow forgotten that ending homelessness is the goal, and all pieces of the system must be designed to optimize this goal.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 4

SoupIt’s a beautiful gesture, warm soup in the cold, lonely days between Christmas and New Year’s.  This article in the London Free Press details the kind, charitable outreach of Craig Abel and Sandy Faugh, serving soup to those experiencing homelessness, in collaboration with Mission Services of London.  A quick search on Google shows that this is no solitary event for Abel and Faugh, but that their charity and kindness extend to various programs and agencies throughout the community.  We read this story, feel glad that there are good people in our community, and simply wish there were more like them.

What does this meal of soup mean in the context of those experiencing homelessness, struggling to make ends meet on $626 per month of social assistance?  It means a lot.  It means a lot because with $626 per month, and average market rent for a bachelor apartment in London being $575, getting out of shelter into housing leaves one with simply not enough money to eat.  Therefore, the food bank, soup kitchens, church meal programs, and these free bowls of soup become a necessary part of the struggle for survival, the struggle that involves walking around all day, each day, from agency to agency, program to program, just to meet the basic necessities.

So it means a lot.  But…

There’s always a ‘but’…

But what does this change?  It doesn’t change tomorrow, and the fact that the hunger will return and there will be no more money until the end of the month.  It doesn’t change that hunger in Canada is a poverty issue.  It doesn’t change one’s ‘food insecure’ status.  It does change one thing though: it makes it a tiny bit easier for governments to shirk their responsibility for citizens most in need, knowing that the charitable impulse will kick in, just enough to keep people alive.

Governments have begun to outlaw soup trucks, for very different reasons, with very different outcomes.  In places like Florida, soup trucks have been outlawed and public feeding of people experiencing homelessness outlawed, because these are seen as increasing vagrancy and decreasing safety in core neighbourhoods.  This is foolishness, criminalizing poverty.  In the UK, soup trucks outside are also being outlawed, but for a good reason.  In response to the Olympics (ok, not the purest of motivations), London established 24/7 drop-in centres throughout the community where food and shelter from the elements are always available.  With these services in place, they began to ban outdoor soup trucks where people were forced to line up in the rain and sleet, and instead encourage the organizations delivering these services to just partner with the drop-in centres, where people could access the food in a safe, comfortable, and well-staffed environment that also provided people with access to other supports.

Is it possible that the best of motivations may not necessarily lead to the best outcomes?  Does a band-aid put on and left too long actually cause a wound to fester?  In the next post I will talk about homelessness, and one step forward with three steps back.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 3

housingSeven years ago and Melissa and I are buying our house.  It’s a fixer-upper, and, following in the footsteps of my father-in-law, we have dreams of renovating, flipping, and starting to build a rental portfolio.  I imagine becoming a landlord offering affordable housing to those looking to exit the street.  Not only will I be addressing homelessness in my work-life, but I will also be able to put my renovation hobby to work to end homelessness in a practical way one person at a time.

Of course, along came three children who greatly altered our timelines, budgets, and goals, but I recently ran into this dream again.  I was talking to a very thoughtful and charitable lady who was doing pretty well in life, and was thinking of developing income properties.  Like my dream, hers included having a portion of the units offered as affordable housing.  She would be the landlord, and be able to offer housing to those ready to leave the shelters or the streets.

One might assume that I would be excited by this vision but instead I felt only cautiously optimistic.  I was optimistic because our London Housing Strategy requires partners from the private sector to get involved.  However, I was cautious because I was concerned that this kind-hearted individual might get burned.  There are many tenants requiring affordable housing who would be considerate, thankful, and always pay on time.  But, there also might be tenants who would be aloof, unkind, and late with payments.  And lastly, there might be a few tenants who would take the copper pipes out of the walls, sell drugs from the unit, and disappear without ever paying.  I was picturing this thoughtful lady putting her resources and charitable impulse to work, then getting burned and giving up on charity altogether.

The questions I hard for her were: 1) What is your goal; 2) What can your role be in achieving that goal; and 3) Who might the experts be in this community to assist you in achieving that goal?  If the goal is to provide a portion of one’s units as affordable housing, I recommended that she connect with the City of London Housing Division.  They are always looking for partners like this.  They could potentially provide capital dollars to make the project a reality, and also provide a means of income-testing to find appropriate individuals.  I also recommended that she consider partnering with an organization like London CAReS who would provide intensive support for the renters and for her as the landlord.  In this way she would be both financially protected, and protected from having a bad experience and having the endeavor ruined by one individual.

The charitable impulse needs to be integrated into solutions that work, rather than simply motivated by a sense of doing good.  In the next post I’ll talk about soup, which seems incredibly benign, but is actually highly controversial.

The Charitable Impulse: Part 2

Begging HandsDue to my line of work, people will often approach me informally or in social settings to talk about experiences of poverty.  They will ask questions or share anecdotes that they find meaningful.  Over the recent holiday season an acquaintance shared the following story:

They were part of a gift-giving program where families in poverty could register to receive a holiday package.  They then had a chance to meet the family, delivering the gift directly to their residence. On dropping off their gift, the visit elicited no response from the recipient. The recipient gruffly told my acquaintance to leave it by the door.  There was no “thank you”, and no interest to engage in conversation.  They presented the experience to me as a frustration, and a clear justification to question all charitable work in general.

What drives the charitable impulse? Although motivations are complex and likely often blended, in some cases the drive is more internal than external.  There is a song by a comedian, too crass to name or link here, but which states, “I’ll give you fifty bucks to take away my guilt.”  The comedian proclaims that he doesn’t really care about poor children in different countries, but is always happy to give to take away his guilt of living so luxuriously in a world full of poverty.

But does motivation really matter?  If it’s just about donations, then who cares why people give?  The thing is that it’s not just about donations, it has more to do with the type of programs we design to actually create change in the community.  I would suggest that a program designed to elicit the most compassion and most donations may not necessarily look the same as one designed to create the greatest, lasting impact.  The charitable impulse to help may be driven by the desire to feel like I am helping, whereas a desire to facilitate change does not hinge so lightly on whether recipients of change have demonstrated an ‘appropriate’ degree of gratitude.