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Fix Homelessness How to rebuild human lives

After Reading Current Assumptions, Try Some Wisdom From the Past


C. S. Lewis once said, “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.”

The same goes for teaching about how to help the homeless and poor. Ever since 2013, federal policy has been “housing first”: Get homeless individuals under a roof with no pressure to get the mental health help many need, and no pressure to fight the drug addiction and alcoholism. We tend to equate compassion with giving-without-strings.

That’s not the way influential poverty-fighters in the late 19th century thought. Maybe they were wrong, or cruel, or deluded. But for every three articles you’ve read trumpeting the 21st century approach, I’m offering here an easy way to read a paragraph from 150 years ago.

If you’ve read three recent give-blindly stories, please ponder Baltimore charity manager Mary Richmond’s contention that it’s hard to teach volunteers “whose kindly but condescending attitude has quite blinded them to the everyday facts of neighborhood life.” Volunteers had to learn that “well-meant interference, unaccompanied by personal knowledge of all the circumstances, often does more harm than good and becomes a temptation rather than a help.”

If you’ve read three stories that equate compassion with tossing a dollar bill into a cup, please read charity leader Humphreys Gurteen’s advice that giving money to alcoholics is “positively immoral.” He argued that if givers could “foresee all the misery which their so-called charity is entailing in the future, [they would] forgo the flutter of satisfaction which always follows a well-intentioned deed.”

If you’ve heard three enticements from a progressive pastor, please listen to New Haven minister H.L. Wayland criticizing the “well-meaning, tender-hearted, sweet-voiced criminals who insist upon indulging in indiscriminate charity.” Similarly, pastor Joseph Crooker noted that “it is very easy to make our well-meant charity a curse to our fellow-men.”

I suspect you’ve seen at least three advisories from philanthropic organizations, so here are three pieces of advice from annual reports of the New Orleans Charity Organization Society: “Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity…. If drink has made a man poor, money will feed not him, but his drunkenness…. the question which we try through investigation to answer [is,] Are these applicants of ours ready to work out with us some plan which will result in their rescue from dependency?”

If you’ve read a bunch of articles in contemporary academic journals, you should be aware of the 19th century Charities Review’s criticism of “that miscalled charity which soothes its conscience with indiscriminate giving.” Charities Review proposed that individuals and groups restrict “material relief to those cases in which such relief would be given by the true friend.” True friendship meant NOT encouraging “lazy imposture . . . such mercy is not mercy: it is pure selfishness.” Instead, true friendship meant helping to deliver a person from slavery to a bottle, a needle, or his own laziness.

If you’ve sat through three social work seminars, please consider social worker Frederic Almy’s argument that “alms are like drugs, and are as dangerous,” for often “they create an appetite which is more harmful than the pain which they relieve.” Governmental welfare was “the least desirable form of relief,” according to Mary Richmond, because it “comes from what is regarded as a practically inexhaustible source, and people who once receive it are likely to regard it as a right, as a permanent pension, implying no obligation on their part.”

Please be skeptical about current pronouncements but also the older ones: Sometimes, caution about doing something wrong can give people an excuse for not doing what’s right. But our predecessors did have legitimate concerns: As New York charity leader Josephine Lowell wrote, “the problem before those who would be charitable, is not how to deal with a given number of poor; it is how to help those who are poor, without adding to their numbers and constantly increasing the evils they seek to cure.”