by Jason Janz
After working in the city for past six years, people will often ask me a question about the homeless wondering if they should help someone flying a sign on the sidewalk. They don’t know if they are helping or hurting
if they give the guy money. This question doesn’t just stop at the sidewalk. It is at the root of a lot of the issues we run into in the city (and increasingly in the suburbs as poverty suburbanizes). It happens almost daily in this work – a perplexing question comes up and there seem to be no easy solutions. We all want the right answer! A lot of times there is a tug-of-war between our empathy and our logic, our heart and our head.
For example, here are examples of things that came up this week.
- We found out that one of the recipients of our college scholarships is homeless. He’s 55 with diabetes and the weather is freezing. We put him up in a hotel for two weeks and then moved him to a shelter. But he walked out of it upon arrival. He said he’d rather ride the bus until 2:30am, walk around until 4:30am, and then get back on the bus when they re-started until it got warmer. “That’s better than sleeping on a concrete floor.” He muttered that he was thinking about giving up on everything. How long do we pursue him and how do we help?
- We work with a single mom of one of our Boy Scouts who used money from the sales of our fundraiser to repair her car to the tune of over $500. She has paid back $200. How much should we hold her accountable for?
- We are friends with a mother in our refugee ministry. She is living in a terrible place but the resettlement agency tells us not to encourage them to move apartments. Do we violate the “rules” for the betterment of this woman?
- We suspect that some ex-offenders are using our free bus tickets and selling them for alcohol. Our office manager caught some guys selling them at the bus stop before. How does he know who is legit and who is just “shucking and jiving”?
- We find out, third-hand and perhaps hearsay, that a former foster child was perhaps neglected and it resulted in her disease symptoms increasing. Do we report this as potential child neglect or was it just a normal parental mistake or is it just a ticked off relative giving a bad report?
- A recently re-settled refugee child has been in his new home for two weeks. The agency is demanding that he see a trauma therapist immediately. However, the adoptive mom doesn’t believe that is best right now due to his need to adapt to a new home, a new country, a new school, new food, etc. Even though she believes in trauma therapy, how long does she put them off (and tick them off) for what she believes is best for the child?
- A single mom with four kids totaled her car. She has to borrow a 15-passenger van to get around but it’s sucking too much gas and costing her too much. Her employer is phasing out her position next week. She needs a job, a car, and some hope. We have 20 families in this program. Many have needs. Who do you help and how much?
- The school district has just fired the fifth principal in six years at the local elementary school. At what point do you start a riot on behalf of low-income kids getting screwed out of a good education?
I thought I would get to the point where I would know the right answers to all of these issues. While experience helps us make wiser decisions, I don’t believe we will ever reach a point where we “have it all figured out.” And I think that’s a good thing. Sticky issues help us to engage our values, our brothers and sisters, our minds and our hearts to try and do what’s best for our fellow man.
*Here are some good aids that have helped me process these issues.
Our good friend at the Issachar House, Scott Lundeen, produced this video.
When Helping Hurts