Have you ever had a volunteer experience where you felt uncomfortable in your role as “giver” or wondered what impact you were having on the lives of those you were “helping”?
Or maybe you’ve donated money to a cause and wondered whether it was going to make a lasting difference.
In his book, “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help,” Robert Lupton argues that many volunteer opportunities and charitable donations do little actual good and sometimes harm those they intend to help. The author gives many examples of “right” and “wrong” ways of giving to illustrate his six principles for effective giving:
1. Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves;
2. Limit one-way giving to emergency situations;
3. Strive to empower the poor through employment, lending, and investing, using grants sparingly to reinforce achievements;
4. Subordinate self-interests to the needs of those being served;
5. Listen closely to those you seek to help, especially to what is not being said – unspoken feelings may contain essential clues to effective service;
6. Above all, do no harm.
Applying these principles to the field of homelessness can help us think strategically about how to donate and volunteer in ways that help people secure stable housing and receive the services they need to maintain that housing over the long run.
Crisis vs. long-term needs
Imagine that you’ve lost your housing and don’t have a support network of friends or family to help you out.
You need a roof over your head, a place to sleep, food and safety – you’re in a crisis situation. You may also have longer-term needs such as finding a job, access to more education, daycare for your children, a medical home, mental health or substance abuse treatment, etc.
These needs – crisis vs. long-term – require different types of assistance, both of which are necessary and important.
Much of current giving to help people experiencing homelessness, however, focuses on short-term, crisis assistance – such as providing meals, clothing and shelter. But there is also a great need for volunteering in initiatives and donating to nonprofit agencies that address the underlying causes of homelessness.
Teach a person to fish
Volunteering in this way is more complex and often requires a longer-term commitment because it focuses on empowering people to help themselves rather than fixing their problems for them. It often involves developing relationships with the people receiving assistance, understanding their needs by listening carefully to them and involving them in decision-making.
It can also be highly rewarding as you gain a deeper understanding of how people become homeless and how hard it is for them to find housing and a job, get mental health treatment, manage their addictions, etc. Perhaps even more rewarding is bridging the gap between yourself and someone experiencing homelessness as you form a relationship.
Make an impact
I am amazed by the compassion and wisdom of those who reach out directly to people experiencing homelessness, form relationships and offer them support (see the book, “An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny” for an inspiring example).
For us mere mortals, however, a more practical way may be to support an initiative that is having positive impacts on the lives of those experiencing homelessness.
In order to have lasting impacts these initiatives need to:
• Be based on the most effective, evidence-based strategies for ending homelessness;
• Be well planned and organized;
• Have clearly defined goals for impacting people’s lives – not just helping them, but making lasting changes;
• Include evaluations of impacts that inform program improvements; and
• Work in partnership with other agencies and initiatives in the community that are serving individuals and families experiencing homelessness.
Several initiatives of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness provide volunteer opportunities that embody these principles.
The Support Circles Program involves small teams of volunteers – often from faith-based communities – that help individuals or families make the difficult transition from being homeless to becoming stably housed. “Support Circles” develop relationships with their “Partners” over a 12-month period, listening to them, providing information about available resources and helping out as needed, such as providing rides to appointments, help furnishing their homes with donated items, and other activities.
The Job Partners Program, administered by the Community Empowerment Fund, helps people who are experiencing or are at risk of homelessness become job-ready and find employment. Participants receive one-on-one assistance to set employment, education and training goals, create resumes, practice interviewing, learn about budgeting and financial management, apply for jobs and maintain their employment.
Find out more by visiting the website of the Orange County Partnership to End Homelessness, emailing mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org calling 919-245-2496.
Jamie Rohe is the Orange County homeless programs coordinator.