What is the best way to help the poor? We may face this question several times a day ---- poverty has many faces.
Suppose you encounter a panhandler on the street. Are you reinforcing a dependency or meeting an urgent need, if you hand him a couple of dollars? Are you paying for a hot meal or cheap rum? Is the hand-off of money intended to ease your own sense of guilt that you have so much? Or, is it perhaps just to let you get safely past him without engaging him personally? People who say there is an easy answer might be failing to listen to either their head or their heart.
One may feel some personal satisfaction when we think we are helping someone, but can we help them so much that we have weakened their own desire and ability to gain the freedom of helping themselves as much as they might? Perhaps we need to ask a few questions, and fine-tune how we should make our loving gift.
I believe in the well-known slogan: "It is better to teach a man to fish, than to simply give him a meal!" Giving the meal is very short-term, momentary help. Teaching him to fish is a gift that keeps on giving, as it will provide him with many future meals.
We need to be smart about how we help people, so as to build up their personal capacity, and thus lessen their dependency on others.
Seeking the "right" balance between help and dependency is not limited to "churchy" situations. Parents face this dilemma daily with their children. It often seems easier to do something for the child, instead of patiently waiting for the child to do what is required. What is age-appropriate child obedience? Parents often do not agree on this, even within the same family. I think I was fortunate because I was the eldest child ---- my parents were much more forgiving of my slow learning than they were with my younger brother. My parents were not what popular literature today calls "helicopter" parents, hovering over their children. But, they learned from experience and nurtured the long-term goal of developing in each of us as much self-reliance as we were able to handle.
At Central Presbyterian Church, we try to relieve poverty by doing more than just giving donations to poor folks. In the spirit of trying to "teach the poor to fish," we often look for partners with the skills and programs that teach these "fishing" lessons. Then we work with the partner by contributing to their financial resources. For example, in 2017, our CPC Members In Mission Team contributed from the Lena Willis Bequest, to a not-for-profit organization in Morristown named Homeless Solutions, Inc. (HSI). Our 2017 grant of $20,000 was to help them continue their good work of helping their "guests" rebuild their lives and successfully return to independent living.
Homeless Solutions, Inc. provides emergency shelter and transitional housing in Morristown for the homeless and working poor of that community. They have been helping those in need for over 30 years, and in 2017 served about 400 people. But, importantly, HSI provides much more than just shelter!
One of the features of their work is the Family Shelter Program for women and their children, providing case management, independent living skills training, parenting education, counseling, linkages to medical care, child care and transportation. Over 50% of those entering this program are victims of domestic violence. Approximately 25 to 30 families, including over 50 children and 20 single women are served each year.
HSI also has a single-men's program, providing shelter for as many as 25 homeless men at one time, with about 100 men served annually. The Men's Shelter Program provides case management services, including money management training, and assists with benefit enrollment, plus placement in permanent housing.
One other way that HSI "teaches people to fish," is through it's Transitional Housing Program. The purpose of this program is to support and train families who are making the move to independence. In order to eradicate the underlying issues associated with recurring homelessness, structured supervision is provided to foster self-sufficiency. The participants are housed in ten self-contained apartments.
So, what's the answer? Is merely handing some cash to poor people an adequate way to help them? It certainly is the most simple for the donor!! However, CPC does more than just write a check. We look to fund outside programs designed to change people's lives ---- hopefully moving them closer to self-sufficiency at a better level. Without CPC's gift and the financial gift of many others, the folks in Morristown's HSI programs would probably not be "learning to fish." However, HSI can rightly claim that it is giving "a hand-up ---- not just a hand-out." Many lives would otherwise be stuck in dependency.
CPC, by itself, cannot do the on-going, face-to-face work undertaken by HSI. And HSI does not have the financial resources to undertake their programs alone. But, working together, CPC and HSI can make a long-term difference in the lives of many people. We would not accomplish this if we merely handed out gifts of money directly to the poor.
These thoughts are brought to you by CPC's Adult Spiritual Development Team, hoping to encourage you to pursue some personal spiritual growth this summer at CPC.