Friday, March 16, 2012

Stop Feeding the Homeless? It's Complicated...

Yesterday I spent a few hours with my friends at Broad Street Ministry as part of their Breaking Bread Initiative, an extension of hospitality and solidarity over a meal and the provision of a variety of services for the homeless of Philadelphia. I have learned a lot through my interactions with those who gather in the old Presby church with the red doors, none which trumps the reality that homelessness and poverty are very complex issues and realites we face domestically and globally.

This is a far cry from my understanding in high school and throughout college. Then, I thought it was fairly simple- give them food and get them a job. I remember many occasions where I would venture either to Baltimore City and hand out bagged lunches to those gathered in monument park or Center City Philadelphia and do the same to those who called the fountains their home. And I felt good about what I was doing.

And it was mostly about me.

I will never forget a conversation I had with one of the pastors at Broad Street Ministry in the Fall of 2007. I was new to the Presbyterian scene and was inquiring about this fairly fresh urban, faith-based community when I began to unveil my passion and "experience" in working with the homeless. I said, "I come down often to Philly and feed the homeless. But I do so by handing out a lunch in exchange for a conversation."

Feed the homeless? Are they pigeons?

In exchange? Dare I hold daily bread over their heads in exchange for anything?

That's when the pastor interjected, "That's not how we do things here. It's much more complex than that."

I was humbled. I was silenced. That day I committed myself to a new posture of learning.

I made it less about me.

Again, homelessness is very complex...more complex than handouts and well-intentioned conversations.

This was affirmed yesterday when I sat down at Breaking Bread with a new friend who has been homeless for 15 months. He slid over to me a recent edition of Metro Philly, whose cover story was "Do Not Feed the Homeless People!" The story addressed Mayor Nutter's recent legislation that will quest to remove the homeless from the streets and eliminate the plethora of volunteers who frequent places such as the Parkway and Love Park and offer handouts of meals to the many who live there. The means, $150 fine to those who offer free handouts in public places, such as in front of the Philly Free Library. The intention, as stated by Nutter, is to remove the increasing dependency of homeless that cripples their ability to "get off the streets" and into more sustainable and safe circumstances.

My friend was outraged. I was somewhat torn.

Is this really an opportunity to end dependency, which I agree is a significant problem, or is it a political move to "clean up the streets" due to upcoming projects intended to draw more tourists and increase revenue?

It's complex.

My friend agreed.

That said, what are your thoughts? Should we stop "feeding" the homeless? Will this legislation prevent your church from driving up to Love Park and dishing out soup? Will this actually provoke new conversations about whether or not these volunteer services are really helpful to the homeless community or enabling them and their growing sense of dependency?

There is truth to Mayor Nutter's remarks, "'Providing to those who are hungry must not be about opening the car trunk, handing out a bunch of sandwiches, and then driving off into the dark and rainy night.'"

In other words, it's complicated.

We need conversations. We need solutions. It will indeed take much more than handouts. It will also take much more than legislation.

It will certainly take more than me.