Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Charity, Meals, and Feeding the Bears

Bill Briggs at NBCNews.com (as well as a number of others) has reported the following story:

In it we learn that 33 cities have adopted or are considering blocking individuals and ministries from feeding the homeless. Four of them -- including Myrtle Beach in my home state of South Carolina -- are singled out in the article as having "recently fined, removed or threatened to jail private groups that offered meals to the homeless instead of letting government-run service agencies care for those in need".

This has led to a healthy discussion in a political discussion group, and some of this will necessarily be a summary of those arguments. And please understand that the arguments I'm presenting below are representative of those I've heard (and sometimes made) over many years. I was merely fortunate to find them gathered in one place this week. I'm addressing this post to the composite "author" of these widespread beliefs. Unavoidably they will strike very close to home for at least a few people.


Now, while I understand the importance of tourism and the concept of "feeding the bears" (i.e. the enabling of dependent behavior), I have said there and continue to maintain that...
...in a country that claims to be the Land of the Free, restricting the ability of individual citizens to act charitably as individuals is simply bad, no matter how eloquently it's rationalized.
I'd like to discuss some of that rationalization, and also expand a bit on the subject of charity.


I have read how undesirable the homeless are, for reasons such as:
  • a high percentage are mentally ill without medication
  • a high percentage are drug abusers
  • a high percentage are ex-convicts
  • a high percentage are criminal sex offenders
  • aggressive panhandling is intimidating.
  • the homeless make people nervous
In general, we're told, the homeless bring far more that your average citizen/parent/consumer has to be leery of, so this is really just a "zoning issue". And since the homeless don't pay taxes, it's only right that those who do... businesses and the wealthy... expect their government to keep their parks and city common areas free of these disruptive and uncomfortable reminders that there are far greater things to be uncomfortable about in this world than whether there's a man on the same street who hasn't had a bath.

I've heard all of these arguments over the years, and held some of them myself before growing out of them. I'm not likely to be swayed by arguments that I've already rejected on firm matters of principle. And they're always mixed in with a number of very reasonable issues that have nothing whatsoever to do with restricting individual charity, and thus, for the purposes of this discussion, are (mostly) ignored.

Let's start with the concept of a "zoning" issue, and the primacy of taxpayers. We have progressive tax rates in this country, and obviously some people do pay more to the government in taxes than others. However, it is only the most severely uninformed who would conclude from that that this confers upon a person a greater share of citizenship. IT DOES NOT. And I'm quite certain that if I were to say it outright to your face, you would agree with me. You would realize immediately that it's a failed argument. You might not viscerally agree: you may feel that a business is "important". But hey, sidewalks are important, too, and the right to use them. In America, all are afforded equal rights and protection under the law, no matter how inconvenient or nervous that might make you. The plain fact of the matter is that these people... the homeless.. are every bit as much citizens as restaurateurs, politicians, bankers, lawyers, baristas, hoteliers, housewives, plumbers, swim suit and souvenir shop owners, etc.

Every citizen has the same right to the public Commons as any other citizen, be he mayor or beachcomber. And all these other citizens can transact personal business in these areas; can eat in these areas; and can wander around aimlessly and enjoy the famous Southern sunshine without it being called loitering.


As citizens we have an obligation to be tolerant. I didn't make that up, either. It was regularly taught in Civics classes back when Civics classes were taught. When asked whether my statement about the Land of the Free and restricting individual charity would look a little different if someone were to announce that he was going to start feeding the homeless every weekend at the entrance to my neighborhood, my answer was, "No." I not only begrudge no one who is charitable toward another human, I don't try to control what they do on their property on their time with their own hard-earned resources. It's called "tolerance". When the discussion is firmly limited to "public spaces", my response is just as firm. Those public spaces belong to all of the public. Not merely those with nice suits, fancy dresses, and neighborhoods with "entrances". They are for citizens, not taxpayers. I don't believe in second-class citizens.

Of course if you're reading this and you've previously made arguments such as all of the bullet points I've listed above, and the "zoning" argument in which the landed gentry get to impose their will on the serfs; you may become a bit defensive when it's pointed out to you that these arguments are completely and utterly indistinguishable from the proposition that there are "second class citizens". No matter how strenuously you might deny such an opinion, your actions and prior arguments are far more convincing. Having had it pointed out, it might be possible that you can still convince yourself that you don't believe in second-class citizens. I only hope it is more difficult for you to do so. It is very important to the common good that if you're going to be class-minded, you are aware of what you're doing and honestly own your opinion.

It is the intolerance of the poor that leads governments to construct laws that make it effectively illegal to be poor... or at least to be poor there. It's okay if you're poor someplace else. Of course they can't get away with actually saying that, so it's sanitized in sterile language such as "zoning". And it's couched in the comforting thought that we can provide "proper places" for such things, managed by Mama Municipality, of course, so that there isn't a need for the charity which is banned. And by removing food from the homeless, and making it illegal to provide the homeless with food in an area rife with restaurants, you remove the problem by force. To put it plainly: the rich folks force the poor people out by making it a crime to aid the poor. I'm not just talking about food. Imagine for a moment that you gave a homeless person a ride... to find that it's illegal and you're fined for "operating a taxi" without a license. Or that you fall foul of hotel laws for allowing indigents to sleep over. Little charitable acts easily become illegal, and you a criminal because of intolerance.

But is it "force"? I quote from the NBCNews.com article: "Police in at least four municipalities – Raleigh, N.C.; Myrtle Beach, S.C.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Daytona Beach, Fla. – have recently fined, removed or threatened to jail private groups that offered meals to the homeless " Yes.... I'd say "force" is the proper term.

It's very easy to be distracted by extraneous issues and imagined complexities to muddy the very clear principles at work. People in this country must be afforded equal rights. If your law doesn't facilitate that, it's bad, even if business picks up.

I'm not suggesting that you're not personally charitable. Almost everyone is when it's convenient, or prudent, or popular. But we must never allow charitable acts to become the moral equivalent of "carbon credits"... letting a couple of good deeds justify getting by with a few bad ones here and there. And we can never separate our politics from our principles. In every meaningful sense, our politics are the purest expression of our principles. As Heinlein observed, all politics is force. Your exercise of political power precisely measures the degree to which you would force others to your will.

I certainly hope you've never considered your politics in those terms on your own. I think if you had you'd likely not conclude that some other citizen doesn't have as much right as you to "your" parks and libraries due to their misfortune of being poor.


Now, there is an excellent point to be made (and which has been made) that even the Bible states that those who refuse to work should not eat. But let's keep in mind the context of that statement shall we?
For you yourselves know how ye ought to follow us, for we did not behave disorderly among you; neither did we eat any man’s bread for naught, but wrought with labor and travail night and day, that we might not be chargeable to any of you, not because we have not power, but to make ourselves an example unto you to follow us. For even when we were with you, this we commanded you: that if any would not work, neither should he eat. -- 2 Thessalonians 3:7-10
Note that this refers to a personal commitment to work for one's own keep. It is a role model providing an example, and I'll further talk about obligation, below. However, this verse assuredly does not command withholding charity for any reason.  Now I'm going to reproduce a statement from the discussion here verbatim because it's important that you know where the advice comes from.
"One of my best friends is formerly "homeless" and his first words in these conversations is that you shouldn't give to most of them. He's a devout Christian and one of the most compassionate people I've ever met. He will tell you that those whom he and others scammed were simply enabling him to remain in destruction."
I don't disagree. I simply warn against the dangers of reading that and overgeneralizing.

I've written on the subject of Charity in this blog before [Jan 16, 2010: Charity]. In that post I describe a case where my wife and I took in people with the understanding that they could stay with us for six months, paying no bills, buying no food, so long as they get a job and save the money. That way, at the end of the six months they would have a first and last month's rent, security deposit, and enough to get utilities turned on, with a small cushion beside. And they were not allowed to pay us back. They must in the future help someone else in need, and likewise ask nothing in return.

One thing I sort of quickly skim over there is that we've taken in a number of individuals; however, that's not entirely without conditions:
  1. Our help is predicated on your active involvement: looking for work and working, and helping out when you're not. 
  2. If hanging out with a bad crowd got you where you are, give 'em up. I can't pick your friends, but I can choose who I allow on my property, so dysfunctional influences are strictly verboten. 
  3. Save your money, no fooling. This is a limited-time opportunity to turn your life around. That doesn't mean no movies or dates. That would be silly and beyond reasonable bounds. But if you're being a spendthrift and living with us for free, then we're being taken advantage of, and we won't stand for that.
Our track record of success is four out of five, meaning that of the five people we've attempted to help, four of them saved their money, got jobs, got back on their feet and are now paying taxes and rent, etc. I think eighty percent is a pretty good success rate. The fifth one is the only one who wouldn't give up her "friends". She landed right back where she was and when she wanted to come back the answer was "No. You know how to do this, but now you have to do it without us." 

This habit of ours has admittedly helped but few people. But it has helped them thoroughly. And it has crossed my mind more times than I can count that there are many, many more times the number of fortunate people in this country than homeless. If everybody wanted to do what we did for even one homeless person, not all would be able to, because there aren't enough homeless to go around.

I'm going to reproduce part of what I wrote, because it cannot be said enough.
Isn't it a comfort to know that if someone truly needs help there's someone else in the world who is willing to give that help? Isn't that nice? 
But you can't know that. You can't know what's in anybody else's mind and heart. The only person you can speak for is yourself. If you want to know... for a fact... that someone in this world is willing to help a total stranger, the one and only possible way to know that is to be that person. 
That's the point that you can realize that no person is truly unique. We all share our humanity. There are many people like you. And if you're willing to help, they are too. Get it? If there's one person who's willing to help, there are millions. But the only way to ensure that there is one is by being that 'one'. 
This is why we as individuals must be charitable. If we're not, then there's no guarantee that anyone will be. And it's not enough to just let the government do it. That is a solution reserved for the lazy, the cowardly, and the apathetic. It's a way for them to not be charitable and say they are. It's a little lie they tell themselves because they don't understand what and why they should do for others.
This summarizes neatly the primary social advantage of individual charity, It gives us the opportunity to fill society with truly compassionate people... not pseudo-compassionates who pay others to keep the problem out of sight. 

But there's more. "Charity" literally means "Love". When the government provides something, there's nothing of charity in it, and the recipients know it. People react to the news of free food, free phone, free whatever with a sense of entitlement: "It's yours, come and get it." But charity is fundamentally different: Charity is not a job, and it's not an entitlement. Nobody can force you to be charitable (that would be "theft"). Charity is a gift of love, freely given, and the recipients know it. Charity begets charity. There's an obligation associated with receiving charity that anyone who's been on the receiving end knows all to well. This isn't the obligation to earn it (that's what paychecks are for), but the obligation to deserve it, which is a vastly different matter. Feeling the obligation to deserve it literally makes you a better person. As such, individuals have a greater impact on the people they help than the government does.


This doesn't mean that it's bad to have government-sponsored soup kitchens, or to place them outside of downtown areas. I'm not arguing against that at all... merely the folly of criminalizing individual charity. And I'm not suggesting that the homeless are in any way exempt from the same trespassing laws that other citizens must obey. We keep out of private property except with permission. But this truism highlights the silliness of also making public property off-limits.

But I do have this observation: If you run a business in the city and homeless people make your customers nervous, you can do a lot more than the city to change that perception while at the same time enhancing your business' image and bottom line, simply by contributing privately directly to a shelter. It's not something that you need a city government to do. Not only is government action less effective; it's not something that you benefit from directly if you allow the city to do it. Charity is also good business.

I'll leave you with this quote from another of my friends:
"Just because something is legal doesn't mean you should do it. Just because you shouldn't do something doesn't mean it should be banned. It is all about personal choice and personal responsibility. I should add ...just because you don't think I (or others) should do something is certainly not a good reason for it to be banned." 


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