Thursday, October 14, 2010

Helping the Homeless

While it is good that local politicians are eager to help the homeless, as this article from the Sacramento Bee notes, and all communities should help those who are struggling, it is crucial to remember that the greatest help one can give another is to teach them how to help themselves.

Self-help should be part of any community helping or else it is a continuation of the problem not a solution to it.

This 1997 article from the City Journal, when the two different strategies of helping the homeless—whether to give them fish or teach them to fish—were being heatedly debated, can give us some insight.

An excerpt.

“The political arguments often get testy on New York 1's popular evening TV talk-fest, The Road to City Hall. But it's hard to remember anything quite like the recent confrontation between George McDonald and Steven Banks, two of the founding fathers of the city's homeless-rights movement. McDonald instantly went on the attack, accusing the city's oldest homeless-advocacy group, the Coalition for the Homeless, of trying to torpedo the work-training program that his own organization, the Doe Fund, runs for residents of the Harlem Men's Shelter. Banks, the Coalition's high-profile lawyer, countered that McDonald and the Doe Fund were exploiting the shelter residents by charging them $65 a week for rent. Dumbfounded by the charges and countercharges, the show's genial, ultraliberal host pleaded, "You're supposed to be on the same side. What's going on here?"

“What's going on is a sea change in attitudes toward the homeless. The Coalition and other advocates remain wholly committed to the entitlement-oriented culture of the old shelter system, along with the belief that the cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. But the Giuliani administration has other ideas. It has been contracting with tough-love programs like the Doe Fund to take over city homeless shelters, a new and, so far, quite successful approach that fundamentally challenges the old culture of dependency. Rejecting the Coalition's insistence that "housing, housing, housing" is the only solution for homelessness, George McDonald's program is based on the premise that the only real answer to the problem is work and personal responsibility. As McDonald recently told me, "My experience with homeless people has brought me to the conclusion that they are more capable of helping themselves than I thought, and than the advocates still think."

“George McDonald's public challenge to the Coalition's entitlement philosophy and his unexpected emergence as an ally of the Giuliani administration represent a breathtaking 180-degree political turn. For no one, not even Steven Banks, has agitated more relentlessly in the trenches of the homeless-rights movement than he. …

“McDonald contends—breaking once more with advocate orthodoxy—that New York, like the rest of America, offers his charges a sufficiency of jobs. "I believe that motivated people in the city of New York who are drug-free and reliable and show up every day for work can always find opportunity," McDonald told me. "Even with high unemployment rates and all the barriers our people have to overcome—prison records, substance-abuse episodes, and spotty employment histories—still they wind up with jobs, because they are so motivated."

“But, as Steven Banks suggested on the New York 1 program, aren't these jobs of the "dead-end" variety, leading nowhere? The concept infuriates McDonald: "Going to work, even picking up leaves or sweeping the streets, anybody who says that's a dead end doesn't have any understanding of the difference between the work culture—the free-enterprise culture—and the welfare culture. I mean, drugs lead to nowhere—to the grave. Yet the attitude of the advocates is, well, the homeless person has a right to lie on the street. The person has a right, a right, a right. That's our basic philosophical difference."