Socks are not enough. This is the title of a new blog post by street nurse, Cathy Crowe. Cathy has been a fierce, outspoken advocate for a national housing strategy to end the injustice of homelessness in Canada. At this time of year, people often ask her how to help people who are homeless. She has a formula to help us think about how to use our resources—our money, time, energy, creativity, passion, skills, and so on—in the best interests of those that charity serves.
Cathy’s formula starts with charity, but doesn’t end there. While charity helps address the immediate needs resulting from material deprivation, it does not and cannot tackle the “upstream” causes of why people land in poverty or homelessness in the first place. Cathy’s formula is for social justice so that we can prevent poverty, homelessness and material deprivation, and the associated suffering. To seek social justice, Cathy suggests we give:
- one-third of our resources to immediate needs (charity);
- one-third to “upstream” practical solutions, like affordable housing;
- one-third to advocacy efforts for both immediate and long-term responses.
I love that the formula starts with charity. As a nurse who serves people who are homeless, Cathy knows all too well the urgency of homeless people’s needs. But charity is just the starting point, as her slogan indicates. She is calling for compassionate charity that seeks to alleviate the immediate suffering of those who are poor AND to prevent further suffering through social justice.
The timing of Cathy’s blog was exquisite. The same day it was published, I took a friend of mine to visit the St. Vincent de Paul Society of Kingston, affectionately known as Vinnie’s. Knowing that I have a critique about the limitations of food banks, my friend wanted to talk to me about whether he should continue his annual donation to a food bank. I suggested Vinnie’s as an alternative and offered to take him for a visit.
Vinnie’s offers a food pantry, a hot lunch meal program, clothing, books, toys, household bedding and other essentials—all for free. I conducted a focus group at Vinnie’s a few months ago, and was impressed by the atmosphere and energy there. Vinnie’s offers a warm, welcoming, non-judgmental environment, where the lines between volunteers and clients are impossible to draw.
To my mind, it is an example of how to do charity well. Charity that is done well helps us see our common humanity–recipients and donors. It provides opportunities for connection and to hear each other’s stories. It promotes compassion, the Latin roots of which mean to “feel with.” When we “feel with” the stories of others, we want to act to alleviate the suffering in those stories, to prevent further suffering. In other words, when charity is done well, it helps us move to the other components of Cathy’s formula for social justice.
When charity is not done well, it reinforces the divide and widens the distance between the giver and receiver. This creates humiliating and stigmatizing experiences for clients, who feel “lesser than” in such circumstances, and that they have little to offer. But not at Vinnie’s.
On our tour, the director of Vinnie’s, Judy, made a point of telling us how important it is that their clients are offered opportunities to volunteer and contribute. She said within hours of a new volunteer job, clients stand taller and have a light in their eyes, knowing that they have “given back” and thereby demonstrating that they too have something to offer. She also spoke of the importance of offering healthy meals that are served attractively, like a fancy restaurant, so that the clients know they are valued. As a member of the focus group said, you can taste the love in the food at Vinnie’s.
Vinnie’s is so welcoming that demand rose 65% in 2013, meaning that the food pantry can now only accommodate emergency food requests every other month. This is why charity must be part of a bigger formula that adds up to social justice.
As Cathy suggests in her blog, charity is important (even if it is not enough.) I support Cathy’s call for social justice whole-heartedly. At the same time, in this season of giving when many want to help those who are poor, hungry or homeless, I recommend that we think carefully about which charities to support. Do the charity’s policies and procedures promote our common humanity or does it divide us further? To help move us towards social justice, I encourage you to support charities that meet clients where they are, non-judgmentally and with respect, enabling their stories to be told—and heard.
Socks are not enough. But, when you are giving those socks (or any other donation of resources), think carefully about where to donate them.