The Charity Slam: Enough Already

It’s been going on for quite some time to be honest. Often it’s just subtle derision producing comments like “charities need to be more business-like” or “My goodness, how many charities do we really need?” Other times the charity slam manifests as a rant against “poverty pimps” or a rail against artists who create things “that my five year old could make.”

I am used to these kinds of slams against charities. Often they are based on a solid lack of evidence, are judgements governed by unpleasant ideologies (“how can you help worthless bums?”), or constitute a debasement of what people do not understand or like.  These types of slams, while frustrating, are fairly easy to deal with or ignore.

There are many voices that express their displeasure with beggars on the street. I understand that people don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction; many tell me that’s why they don’t give to beggars. “That kind of charity doesn’t help anyone,” I have been told in one way or another. I get that. But more often than not when I ask what kind of charity they do that works, I am met with either silence or a bit of a lecture about how they made their way all on their own, and so forth. In other words, they think homeless people should receive no help. That’s a whole different kind of charity slam I think. To be honest, it is not likely their minds will be changed, even if they later admit that they didn’t make it on their own; they had a whole bunch of help and support. Some people just don’t believe they should be charitable. Fortunately, not many.


But there has been a growing undercurrent of criticism about charity and charitable organizations that I find quite troubling and that I think we must do something about.  Ironically, this escalating negativity about charity is coming from – and often led by – leaders in the charitable/non-profit sector. To be clear, I am not talking about people who direct criticisms at the sector they work within. It’s deeper, more pervasive than that.

For the past ten years or so, leaders across all sectors have recognized that the community’s approaches to ending poverty have not been working as well as we would like them. I am one of the first to agree with that and here’s why: for too long the community has assigned human service agencies like mine the responsibility of ending poverty. While that perspective is changing, it is still prevalent, even among leaders in the non-profit sector.

The other day, I spoke up at a gathering of community leaders about how negative we have become about charitable acts like feeding and clothing the poor and the homeless. We do a lot of that at Bissell Centre. Why? Because homeless, hungry, impoverished people show up at our agency seven days per week.

But the narrative about such work often demoralizes me and my incredible staff. For example, those types of services are typically labelled as “alleviating poverty.” In other words,  feeding the hungry and clothing the homeless address the effects and symptoms of poverty, which is true, but tell me why so many voices go on to denounce these services as “not being good enough” or as “a waste of funding?” Do those of us who are turning our resources away from basic needs provision really think the hungry and homeless will be lining up to attend focus groups on systemic change?

The community of course wants to see more done than just “band aid” social problems, but devaluing, or worse, denouncing programs that feed and clothe people as inferior to other initiatives that attempt to change systems is wrong, if not mean-spirited. Frankly, we need to weave together services that range from addressing basic needs across a spectrum of capacity building services for people all the way to initiatives that tear down system barriers and the injustice they often maintain. All of it is needed. All of it.

Imagine if I told the 300 to 400 people we feed each day that feeding them was wrong because it is based on that old inferior “charity-model” and that from now on we were going to lobby the government for better food policies that would benefit them – someday down the road. I can just see our clients nodding their hungry heads in agreement. “Of course,” they will say. “Feeding the hungry isn’t going to help us as much as a  new plan or policy from the government or from community funders. Being hungry in the meantime makes perfect sense.”

The very true fact that free meals and clothing and shelters won’t end poverty in our community should never mean we devalue feeding the poor, make sure kids and parents have winter coats, or provide a homeless person a place to crash for the night. Of course these are not services that create lasting change; whoever said they were?

But here’s the thing. They are not band aids either. When someone shows up at Bissell Centre hungry, we will feed them. If they need clothes and winter gear, we will provide them. A single mom without formula or diapers for her baby will get some from us. If someone shows up lonely or hurt, we will sit with them, talk with them. How utterly inhumane it would be to turn away from such people in such need because we believe providing such help has no long-term value.

Bissell Centre does more than address basic needs of course, but everything we do is connected. More often than not, the people we find permanent employment for were at one time getting free meals and clothing from us and some much needed friendship and human to human caring. We met them where they were at and helped them through their suffering and despair day by day as we invited them to other services and opportunities for rising up above street life and taking steps toward a better future.

Let’s stop talking about how terrible the so-called charity model is and how it has failed all of us. Let’s stop talking about it because there is no “charity model,” but there certainly is something called “charity” and frankly we need more of it, not less. It means caring about others; its definition includes “benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity.” Being charitable is I suggest fundamental to being human. I don’t know about you, but I am for it.

Pity the day we start turning away the hungry and the homeless as our new strategy to end hunger and homelessness. God help us if we stop delivering programs that decrease the suffering and despair caused by poverty and injustice. Working together to effect systems change, not to mention changes in public awareness and attitude, only makes sense to me if we feed the hungry and house the homeless while we work on the bigger changes required to end suffering and injustice in our communities.

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