Justice, Not Charity

Homelessness will not be ended with charity. Charity, throughout human history, has never solved a social issue. It never will.

Charity is terrific at meeting immediate needs. Charity can feed you. Charity can clothe you. Charity can even shelter you. But it will not solve the issue that led you to being hungry, naked or without a roof over your head. There will always be a time and place for charity; but we cannot be fooled into thinking that charity was ever designed nor intended to be the same thing as justice.

Ending homelessness is a matter of justice. Justice is thoughtful, deliberate and iterative. It is intended to bring about change that allows for opportunity. It is not synonymous with equality, though equality may be an element of justice depending on the issue.

Justice is blind to a deserving and undeserving poor. As a matter of justice there is inclusion. People do not have to demonstrate their worthiness for housing. In justice there is a fundamental belief that all people are worthy of being housed.

This does not mean that housing comes without price, nor does it mean that housing comes without expectations of behavior. A just price for housing is what one can afford relative to her/his means. It doesn’t mean free, unless the person has nothing. A just approach to behavior sets expectations relative to what is possible for the individual. A just approach does not have expectations that exceed the capabilities of the person. And within the acceptable expectations, there are consequences. A just approach to housing is not “anything goes”.

A just approach to housing deliberately seeks to serve those most disadvantaged for they are the most in need of assistance. A charitable approach is more inclined to rely on first come, first served. A just approach will use a number of variables to assess opportunities for assistance. A charitable approach is more inclined to focus on what feels right rather than what can be proven. A just approach will promote greater independence and interdependence with a broader community. Charitable acts are dependent upon people requiring charity and are more narrowly focused (in most instances) on the relationship between the charity provider and the charity recipient.

Justice embraces the fullness of human potential. It is not socialism. In fact, it is about the protection of capitalism based upon basic human rights. Social inclusion, as an element of justice, sees opportunity for participation in the labor force as an appropriate pursuit relative to each person’s potential, respecting that even people with disabilities (seen and unseen; physical, cognitive and otherwise) should have the opportunity to participate as they are able. And a justice lens appreciates that the opportunity for full inclusion in the workforce is enhanced first with the opportunity to have stable, affordable, secure, safe housing.

With justice, people are supported in housing until such time as they have mastery of the skills necessary for the most possible independence relative to her/his capabilities. With charity, people have their housing needs met without expectation of skill development. Justice promotes personal responsibility and pride. Charity promotes gratitude to the giver.

Charity requests (demands?) that philanthropy and government provide grants that make assistance possible. Justice requests (demands?) investment to impact social change and spends on those aspects that are most likely to result in lasting change. In a charitable model the same types of services, often to the same organizations, is quite probable year after year with little variation. In a justice model, needs assessments are conducted with regularity, and the investment strategy follows the needs as identified through evidence. Charity believes there are problems that can be improved upon with financial and human resources. Justice proves there are problems that can be improved upon with financial and human resources.

Justice demands that the most qualified, trained people are involved in the provision of services, as those most in need are deserving of the most qualified persons to assist them. A charitable model fills gaps with well-intentioned, warm bodies that are fantastic at meeting immediate needs. But charitable persons may come from a broad range of careers and life experiences and are donating their time. This is commendable and will keep (most) people alive for another day. But it will not stem the tide and end homelessness.

To end homelessness, therefore, we need to believe and promote an agenda that is firmly anchored in doing so because ending homelessness is the just thing to do. If ending homelessness is framed as something that is solely an act of charity the day to day needs of homeless people will be met, but the problem will never be solved…and in fact is likely to expand as demands outstrip charitable resources.

Iain De Jong

About Iain De Jong

6 Responses to “Justice, Not Charity”

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  1. Iain, this is one of your most thoughtful and compelling posts yet. Bravo. I am sharing it with my network for sure.

  2. melanie bliss says:

    How I have struggled to say all of this–I often say that “I do not believe that charity is justice work (socks, hotel shampoos and drive-by casseroles)–justice work is working to remove the barriers and inequalities that keep people from making enough money to afford a place to live, working on the systemic barriers that people are hungry because they do not earn enough wages to pay for housing and food in a month”, based on some of Frederick Buechner’s writings. I love how you have woven this all together, and I too will be sharing these wonderfully written words!!!

  3. Rob says:

    Awesome. Maybe I should say “awesomer”. At any rate, really, really well said.

  4. Ryan Hannon says:

    A must read for anyone interested or connected to homelessness in any way. I talk to a lot of people that want to go beyond charity. This encourages people interested in ending homelessness to move beyond charity and engage practically in the solution. Ongoing awesomeness Iain!

  5. Theresa says:

    Please join and support your local Land Trust… if there is none, see about helping to start one… provide real homes for real people one household at a time, and see the real changes that come with them…

  6. Bob says:

    This is an excellent and compelling post. The problem is that the paths of charity are well worn and are easily accessible. I can drop some spare change in someone’s hand. The road to justice is not well-known and many (myself included) don’t have the slightest clue how to begin.