When Helping Hurts
When the network system for Southwest Airlines failed last year, sending scores of holiday travelers into endless frustration and fatigue, a business analyst described the catastrophe as happening “gradually, and then all at once.” In other words, cracks and fissures emerged in the system over time, weakening the structure to the extent that, in one extraordinary moment, it crashed.
The descriptor is applicable not just for Southwest Airlines, but in all of life. When something breaks, whether in marriage, work, organizational structure, or most anything else, rarely is it spontaneous. It happens gradually, and then all at once. Gaps appear. Cracks that were at one time insignificant grow. The system bears the stress for as long as possible, and then all at once, disaster.
This is precisely what is happening in our community at present as hundreds of children, adults, and families are finding themselves homeless, seventy-five percent of those for the first time. It happens gradually, and then all at once. Gaps began appearing years ago with soaring rents and low wages. Covid-19 sent new fissures through human lives. The cracks then widened with skyrocketing inflation and an ever-tightening housing market which has resulted in lives crashing down into homelessness.
The good news is in the caring nature of our community. Many people genuinely want to help, but therein lies the problem. Sometimes the way we help is hurtful. What we may think is helpful only exacerbates the situation. This is what is commonly referred to as “toxic charity.” Robert Lupton, who coined the phrase, writes, “As compassionate people, we have been evaluating our charity by the rewards we receive through service, rather than the benefits received by the served. We have failed to adequately calculate the effects of our service on the lives of those reduced to objects of our pity and patronage.”
Offering help should always be about the benefit to the recipient without regard for personal reward. As such, what legitimately benefits the homeless recipient? While handing out food, clothing or even tents may seem like the perfect answer, we need to look at it more closely. Those seemingly harmless actions actually disempower our homeless, creating unnecessary dependence while keeping them away from agencies that possess the expertise to not only help, but permanently change their lives for the better. Temporary, short-term handouts only work against that larger system. It is the definition of toxic charity.
For that reason, let’s help in ways that empower the homeless and dignify their humanity. For example, support organizations that are already doing good work. We have experts in the field fighting a tsunami of circumstances that have caused these growing numbers, so let’s help them do what they are trained and gifted to do. Volunteer, and not just during the Christmas holiday! The Coalition For the Homeless, Salvation Army, Christian Service Center and Orlando Rescue Mission need you in June as much as December.
Further, you can partner with local agencies to provide “household set up items” such that when a homeless person is placed in housing, they have the necessary items to function. Also, consider becoming a “cold weather warming center” during the cold snaps that happen during our winter months or agree to provide meals for the people staying in those centers. Your business or faith-based organization will often have facilities perfect to meet this need.
Finally, you can pick up the phone and call any of the organizations mentioned to ask, “How can I best help you?” Instead of determining that we will help in the way we see fit, which is often hurtful, ask an expert in the field how you can help in ways that will lift the homeless into a life of greater safety, dignity and health.
David Swanson is the senior pastor at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando and former chair of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness.
This article first appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on May 4, 2023.