Friday, March 16, 2012

Stop Feeding the Homeless? It's Complicated...

Yesterday I spent a few hours with my friends at Broad Street Ministry as part of their Breaking Bread Initiative, an extension of hospitality and solidarity over a meal and the provision of a variety of services for the homeless of Philadelphia. I have learned a lot through my interactions with those who gather in the old Presby church with the red doors, none which trumps the reality that homelessness and poverty are very complex issues and realites we face domestically and globally.

This is a far cry from my understanding in high school and throughout college. Then, I thought it was fairly simple- give them food and get them a job. I remember many occasions where I would venture either to Baltimore City and hand out bagged lunches to those gathered in monument park or Center City Philadelphia and do the same to those who called the fountains their home. And I felt good about what I was doing.

And it was mostly about me.

I will never forget a conversation I had with one of the pastors at Broad Street Ministry in the Fall of 2007. I was new to the Presbyterian scene and was inquiring about this fairly fresh urban, faith-based community when I began to unveil my passion and "experience" in working with the homeless. I said, "I come down often to Philly and feed the homeless. But I do so by handing out a lunch in exchange for a conversation."

Feed the homeless? Are they pigeons?

In exchange? Dare I hold daily bread over their heads in exchange for anything?

That's when the pastor interjected, "That's not how we do things here. It's much more complex than that."

I was humbled. I was silenced. That day I committed myself to a new posture of learning.

I made it less about me.

Again, homelessness is very complex...more complex than handouts and well-intentioned conversations.

This was affirmed yesterday when I sat down at Breaking Bread with a new friend who has been homeless for 15 months. He slid over to me a recent edition of Metro Philly, whose cover story was "Do Not Feed the Homeless People!" The story addressed Mayor Nutter's recent legislation that will quest to remove the homeless from the streets and eliminate the plethora of volunteers who frequent places such as the Parkway and Love Park and offer handouts of meals to the many who live there. The means, $150 fine to those who offer free handouts in public places, such as in front of the Philly Free Library. The intention, as stated by Nutter, is to remove the increasing dependency of homeless that cripples their ability to "get off the streets" and into more sustainable and safe circumstances.

My friend was outraged. I was somewhat torn.

Is this really an opportunity to end dependency, which I agree is a significant problem, or is it a political move to "clean up the streets" due to upcoming projects intended to draw more tourists and increase revenue?

It's complex.

My friend agreed.

That said, what are your thoughts? Should we stop "feeding" the homeless? Will this legislation prevent your church from driving up to Love Park and dishing out soup? Will this actually provoke new conversations about whether or not these volunteer services are really helpful to the homeless community or enabling them and their growing sense of dependency?

There is truth to Mayor Nutter's remarks, "'Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.'"

In other words, it's complicated.

We need conversations. We need solutions. It will indeed take much more than handouts. It will also take much more than legislation.

It will certainly take more than me.



  1. Good stuff Greg. Certainly "drive by" handouts are not going to solve the complex layers of issues that land someone in poverty, and more specifically homelessness. A broader more holistic and communal approach is needed for that.

    That said, I think it is a terrible idea to prohibit feeding the homeless in public places downtown. I personally think Nutter should be ashamed for going along with something like that. Complexities and all, we ought not to band acts of mercy, even if they are long term solutions. If someone is hungry, I naive as it might be in this day and age, but I till believe we should feed them :) I know, crazy huh! Thanks for the post Greg, worthwhile discussion.

  2. Drew, I appreciate the comments. I think there are so many layers to this discussion, but do believe that to fine well-intended generosity is over the top, may even violate human rights/freedoms. On the flip side, I do think that handouts can do more harm than good and if we want to love, we love best through informed generosity versus reckless, and sometimes self-gratifying, generosity. I am not saying that on occasion it is not faithful and hospitable to offer a meal to a passerby; I do this on occasion as well (and would risk $150 fine, although this only occurs on a thrid offense). On the flip side, I no longer flaunt and organize these handout events with youth, instead partner with much more holistic and informed agencies and ministres, e.g. BSM, in efforts to pursue much more long-term solutions...

    Needless to say, I think there is much more below the surface on this piece of legislation than a desite to alleviate honmless dependncy. I think has more to do with revenue and tourism...

    1. I completely agree with you. And obviously more holistic and informed agencies are the obvious long term approach to care for the homeless. However, from what I understand, even organizations like Chosen 300, which have been doing holistic ministry to the homeless for several years, has found the law troubling. While we as a society need to have more conversation around ways to empower folks rather than just give handouts, the reality is that we can't become so apathetic to those who struggle that we feel justified in trying to enforce laws aimed at making our city accessible to tourists at the expense of our most vulnerable. Handouts might create dependency. But the reality is that many folks suffer from homelessness because of mental disease, socio-economic plight, and lack of opportunities. While there are some that need encouragement to get off their butts or support to be equipped, the reality is that there is a lack of jobs in the city, especially one's that offer actual living wages. Add to that the reality that 1 out of 3 black males are arrested (mostly for nonviolent crimes) and then are almost virtually undesirable to most businesses, and you have a serious crisis. Some folks are going to need some type of crutch (hand out) until we as a society can learn how to level the playing field for all citizens, regardless of skin color and the neighborhood one grows up in. (Please read "hand outs" as being done through partnership with holistic organizations as you mentioned).

    2. indeed. I think there are many layers to this conversation. I am not a fan of legislation "against" generosity, even if it is naive gernerosity. I also think that this is a premature law, given that there are so many holes in the system and lack of holistic agencies given the number of homeless in the city (despite fabricated statistics). I don't think this is a simple conversation where we can blankedly condemn the legislation, nor can we support it. Especially as the church, I beleive we need to imagine alternative solutions to alleviate poverty and homelessness given the diverse causes to it. Granted, we must be willing to cooperate with the government to provide long-term solutions, but also not beco0me dependent upon it. That said, we can protest this law as much as we want...or we can begin to imagine holistic agencies like BSM in Center City in places beyond center city....

  3. The majority of the people involved with helping this cause had a history of substance abuse and a high percentage of those people came from the Downtown East side

    The Servants of Hope is a non profit charity that has been helping the people of Vancouver’s downtown east side for the past 6 years. Alongside hot meals and warm coats they serve up a sense of hope and a chance at a new life. Below is a video link from Christmas 2012 over one hundred people came together to feed the homeless and do outreach we served over one thousand people that night

  4. I was pretty angry about this. And despite valid arguments and some vague reasoning, it doesn't trump the fact that people going hungry will not be fed. Nutter publicized this perfectly: as vaguely as possible. He worries that outdoor food services may be "unsantiary". Well ok, the homeless do not have many options to clean up before accepting an apple. However I think that Nutter's comment was projected towards the volunteers. I know already that meals can be planned long in advance, and so because of this, the food and table can be checked just like the food carts are in Philadelphia by the FDA (these carts are allowed and dubbed "sanitary"...). Wear gloves, that one is pretty easy. But providing that the majority of servers are volunteers they understand what is going on and know that the homeless may not be the most beatuiful smelling or squeaky clean, they also know that these are people, fellow human beings who are hungry. Spread of virus is a huge stereotype... Another annoyance I find with this possible law is that Nutter, as mayor, enforces the codes put upon shelters and food places (ex. Broadstreet Ministries) limiting the amount of people in the building and etc. Causing people to attempt to travel to different shelters is not only dangerous to them but it can all be for not if the building is already full or God-forbid, running out of food... it is just upsetting. The homeless are not "visual polution" to our city. They are human beings. They need to eat, and if someone wants to voluntarily feed them, it helps both people.

    1. thanks for your comments, and I empathize with your concern. I think part of it is not "unsanitary" in regards to the food preparation process and also the nutrition of the food. I talked to a homeless man the other day who said he has gained 15 pounds of unhealthy weight since being homeless due to the types of food provided. However, gov't regulations on food are not much better anyway. I think it is hard to hold in tension the expressed concerns of the mayor, along with the free options for permits and trainings, with the unspoken reality that it really is to clean up the city and in turn to increase revenue; however, this could be a false assumption. That is why I am grateful for people at BSM who have a relationship with Mayor Nutter and are able to navigate this tension way better than I. However, go to my other post on this and hear my friend Adam speak about the validity of outdoor options, and you begin to swing right back to the other side. it is going to take a lot of conversation and imagination, and I am not sure if the ordinance will be a wise "solution"