I was heavily involved with homeless non profit work for many years. I started a 501(c)3 from the ground up. That said 501(c)3 is sitting with an awesome name and not much else to show for it. I lived to help these people. The last few years of my life have been change after change, not allowing me to put time and energy into the field I once loved. I recently saw one of the volunteers I used to work closely with. All of the thoughts came back to my mind. I do give, I believe in the power of generosity. I also strongly believe in the dilemma of hand outs. That is where the story begins.
I spent hundreds of hours pouring my heart into this passion. I believed this to be my calling, exactly where I was supposed to be. My roommate at the time watched me spend crazy amounts of time filling out 501(c)3 paperwork and researching the correct way to do it all without a lawyer. One late night she handed me the book “When Helping Hurts” by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert. That is when my mind started to change and the way I looked at volunteer work took a drastic turn. I had been working with multiple food shares in our area. I met many homeless people and became a familiar face to them. They would show up to the food shares like clock work for their next meal. I thought I was doing so much good, I thought I was changing the world.
That is the problem itself. “I thought I was changing the world.” It was about putting a meal in an empty stomach, but I was receiving something as well. I was creating a “Rich” vs “Poor” mentality without ever realizing it. My research with Asset Based Community Development really took off in this time. I found a local non profit trying to do it on a small scale in a local community. I went and spent time observing the way it worked. Asset Based Community Development is genius, but so hard to do on a large scale. A Great Definition comes from The Asset Based Community Development Institute, “The Asset-Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) is at the center of a large and growing movement that considers local assets as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions, asset-based community development draws upon existing community strengths to build stronger, more sustainable communities for the future.”
I had been working directly with specific homeless individuals at the time. I had poured my life and friendship into them. I really thought I had made a change in their lives. Until, they had food in their fridge but kept returning to the food shares to receive food. They were so used to getting everything, it was uncomfortable to work for it. They couldn’t keep the jobs the local community helped them find because they would rather spend time with their friends on the streets. This is when my eyes were opened even wider. WE had created this problem. We gave and gave and gave and now many just expect. We never allowed them to work for the things they needed, so these things lost their value. Why work for food when you can get it for free? Why buy clothes when you can throw them away day after day and more will be provided? The damage saddened me as it became real.
I did what any ambitious 20 something year old would do, try to fix the problem. I made a promise that I would not perpetuate this problem any further. I continued to research and tried my hardest to find a solution. One of the best books I came across was “Toxic Charity” by Robert Lupton. Short term mission trips took on a whole new light to me. The “we have plenty” come in and give to the “we don’t have enough.” We believe we are pouring into people for a week and changing their lives forever. We may give them an amazing house, or food on their table but when we leave we also leave them worse off. These people no longer have their dignity. They did not work hard for these things, they were handed to them. I still have not figured out the best way to handle the problem of poverty, but using their assets just seems like the missing key.
I became burnt out when I realized how hard Asset Based Community Development truly is. You have to find few who are committed to drastic change and move forward. The problem is that most people don’t like working towards anything that does not have drastic results. We have been living in generations of hand outs. When one of the best things I heard in this time is, “Don’t give a hand out, give a hand up.”
People do not need a temporary fix, they need permanent change. The only way we will see this change though is when we seek change.
Too many people complain about the laziness of the poor or homeless. They talk of the “pursuit of happiness.” They complain about paying for other peoples stuff when they have worked so hard. Wake up people, we have created this problem! Every time you hand something to someone, you enable them to become only receivers. Generosity is a beautiful thing when it is done in a circle reaction. One might not have said asset, but they are able to give another asset to someone else. This generosity works in community where all contribute. The problem with the way charity is now, the rich give and the poor receive. We have created an even bigger divide between the classes. We need to become a community where the circle is just as relevant. Every single person has something to bring to the table. Once you give that dignity back, we may start to see change.
There is so much more to Asset Based Community Development. I hope that you will do your research and learn. My goal was to tell you why I quit giving hand outs and hopefully spark something inside of you. I could write books, a whole blog on this issue but I won’t. I’m going to leave it the experts. I highly recommend if you are in any mission, volunteer, giving field- read these two books!
Please do not give blindly. We can make a change when we give people back their dignity. What a beautiful thing it would be to see communities generously giving for a common goal. People who all have assets, not just the “rich” and “poor”.