Headlines from First Thoughts

Friday, May 15, 2009

Stop-Doing List to End Chronic Homelessness

The next steps we can take to help our community achieve the goals of the Knox County 10-year plan to end chronic homelessness require no money, resources, or time, and less effort than ever before. These steps do not require a “to-do” list.
We need a Jim-Collins-style “Stop doing list.” As caring citizens, we need to match our good intentions with good outcomes. We need to evaluate whether our good deeds enable a problem to continue or lead to a reduction in homelessness.

Most people see needs and want to do something to fix them. We have learned, however, that this “needs-based” approach does not always fix the problem of homelessness. Just because a person is hungry does not mean he needs cash. Even if a person is thirsty does not always mean the answer is a free meal.

Social workers, faith-based groups, congregations, and agencies are collaborating now in an “asset-based” approach. This approach states that every homeless person has something she can offer, even if all she has is time. Everyone knows the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” The asset-based approach takes the golden rule to the level of an iron rule: “Don’t do anything for others that they can do for themselves.”

The asset-based approach requires the helpers to change as much as the clients. Compassionate hearts must be joined with tough love and sustainable practices. To do so, we need a stop doing list: areas where your help is no longer needed.

1.) Giving cash with no strings attached. You know the drill. The pitiful-looking person gives you the sidewalk speech: “My baby is in the car (conveniently around the corner), and I need money for baby formula. Do you have a few dollars you could spare?” Most people have two reactions: pity and fear simultaneously. We pity the individual and are afraid of what would happen if we say no. Statistics tell us, however, that homeless people usually do not attack others. There are resources in the community for people to have food for babies. Formula, however, happens to be a commodity re-sold at higher prices to pay for addictions. A few dollars can go a long way to purchasing the street value of a rock of cocaine that ranges from $10-25. The best answer to the request is to offer to accompany the person to the nearest social service agency, but no means give money.

2.) Giving away food with no strings attached. We don’t need any more free food programs in Knoxville. Just in case you are considering one, agencies and churches offer 3 free square meals every day in our great community. On Sunday, some estimate there are 8 free meals. More free food enables dependence and drains the resources and energy from volunteers that could be trained to coach, mentor, and walk beside people. Local food programs should be evaluated. Are they helping us reduce the number of people in the food lines? Are these programs following Health Department regulations designed to protect everyone in the community?

3.) Sharing dingy clothes and furniture. As Ron Hall suggested at last week’s “Carry the Torch,” banquet, if you wouldn’t wear it, why would a homeless person? Let’s treat these people with the respect and dignity that they deserve. Clothes closets need good clothes, business suits, and professional outfits to give clients healthy self-respect.

By stopping practices that enable poverty, we give each other time, energy, and resources to focus on what works: relationships with people, mentors who walk beside those in crisis, neighbors who treat others with respect, and housing to stabilize the indigent. Let’s match our good intentions and generous hearts with great outcomes. Our homeless friends deserve nothing less.

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