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More than Just Charity

I’m sort of a social-media-butterfly. I love Facebook to connect with our friends and family, Instagram to show off my wanna-be-photographer skills and I’m learning to Tweet with wit.

Always the shopper and always looking for a good deal, I follow (on Facebook) several [Insert County Here] Online Yard Sale pages; my home county, and a couple neighboring counties. Last Friday, I stumbled upon a post on a neighboring county’s yard sale site that gave a lot of details about a man who is living in an old travel trailer with no heat, water, or utilities. The closing line of the post was “he’s been building fires to stay warm.” There were 237 comments under this post of well-meaning citizens offering clothes, blankets, propane fuel, wood, food, and any other myriad of “stuff.”

Insert comment number 238 from me and it went something like this: “I’ll have our Outreach Worker at WVCEH check on him. We hook people directly up with housing resources. Let’s get this gentleman into housing, and we won’t need to collect all this stuff for him.” Commenter #239, “we need an emergency shelter. The building that the church was trying to buy for an emergency shelter mysteriously caught fire.” At this point, I comment again and basically say that we do not need any more emergency shelters in WV. On average, we have 330 empty beds each night, which is roughly enough to triage every person who is sleeping outside every night; emergency shelters are expensive and have a lot of overhead costs. It’s 4x more expensive to us as taxpayers to leave people unsheltered rather than just put them into housing. New commenter pops in: “we don’t need to impose our values on him, maybe he’s happy living in his camper.”

Among this back and forth, there were several more comments from people wanting to drop off blankets, clothes, money and food at a church for this gentleman and even a group of commenters coming together to locate yet another travel trailer for $3,000 to buy this man.

This got me to thinking about what Iain from OrgCode spoke about in regards to charity last Wednesday in WV at our How to be an AWESOME shelter training. Why is that when faced with facts, data, and best practices, do people still feel the need to give in the way that they feel is best for the person and flat out ignore the data. Is charity more about the person needing the charity or more about the person providing the charity? I think in a lot of cases it’s the latter. We get so wrapped up in our own day to day that we forget to look at what the receiver really needs. Giving to others is what makes us human. Of course this gentleman needed to be safe, warm, and fed, all things that we as humans must have. But what does he need most of all? 

Justgive.org has a Top 35 list of Ways to help the Homeless. #1 and #2 are to understand who the homeless are and educate yourself on homelessness. Once you understand who is homeless and educate yourself about homelessness, you will be able to give with your heart and also give in ways that are most needed with sound reasoning behind your gift, knowing it will go where it is most needed and make the most impact. The most needed thing for someone experiencing homelessness is housing, so why not give the most needed thing first and once that crisis is solved, you can shower that person with the supportive services needed to help them stay in housing?

So, in some respects the poster (much to my chagrin) was correct. We shouldn’t impose our will, or values, or morals on someone if it is their choice to live outside. But living outside is deadly, another fact, and we should do our best to provide options that first and foremost are rooted in housing. Maybe he just wants firewood and socks, or maybe no one has thought to offer him housing beyond lamenting the need for another shelter. The fact is that charity meets immediate needs only, and while not a bad thing, charity has never solved one complex social issue in the history of our species. So, in the coming week we’ll be asking our Outreach Worker to speak with this gentleman and immediately offer him housing that we can offer on the spot. Thus, we’ll be providing a potential solution to his current dilemma, not just well-meaning gestures that might keep him outside. 

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WV Coalition to End Homelessness | PO Box 4697, Bridgeport, WV 26330 | 304-842-9522 | info@wvceh.org | website by brickswithoutstraw