As you read this, non-profit organizations – especially homeless service providers – are busy collecting money from people and organizations that like to give in this season. This “season” is the period between (American) Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is no doubt that the general populace likes to give at this time of year to homelessness related causes. I suspect if you have been to a mall or thriving downtown or near a large public transportation hub you have heard the chime of bells and seen the red kettle or had a service organization knock on your door or read or seen a news report.
Give, if you like, your money.
But know that your charitable donation is not going to solve the issues that caused homelessness in the first place. It will, however, give someone a meal or a bed or access to a shower – all of which are necessary things. Giving away some of your money will probably make you feel pretty good too. However, that same person that benefited from your donation today is likely to need a meal, bed and/or shower the day after and the day after that and the day after that. And should they disappear, someone else will eat their meal, sleep in that bed or need a shower.
Charity begets more charity. It is a band-aid. It is an immediate and short-term approach to dealing with need. There will always be a place for charity, but needs will grow and more will be needed. Why? Because we are not getting to the root of the issue.
I respectfully challenge you or your friends and family to try different things this year:
- Start an advocacy campaign with your elected officials. Write letters. Lots of them. Send emails. Weekly. Visit them in their offices. Do not accept the prepared responses and double-speak. They represent you and make decisions on your tax dollars. Demand they listen to you and the group you represent. You are not a special interest group. You are reality.
- Educate yourselves. Ask a non-profit to come to your office and educate you and colleagues on the issue. This isn’t a fundraising pitch. This is an education opportunity. People don’t know what they don’t know. If you are on the other side of the coin – working in a non-profit – offer to do “lunch and learns” in the new year to educate people on the issues and don’t ask for a cent when you are done. It changes the paradigm and historical type of relationships that non-profits have had with for-profit companies.
- Suggest to anyone that will listen that you want your taxes to go up. Just a little. What? We can’t get better services at less cost. There are no more efficiencies to be found. If your taxes went up to increase the amount of housing, or the availability of case management supports, or improved government benefit rates – would that be a bad thing?
- Do something awesome and unexpected not for the people that use the services at the non-profit, but the staff that support them day in and day out. They do incredible work in conditions that are rarely understood by people not immersed in it daily. They are underpaid. They are over worked. Give the staff and incredible meal or a night out or even comfortable insoles because they are on their feet all day. “Help us practice self-care” sounds like a legitimate holiday fundraising campaign to me.
- Re-think the “Turkey Drive”. Many communities have this down to a science now, ensuring that low-income families receive a turkey and the fixings to go with it to prepare at home, and that homeless individuals and families receiving turkey on Thanksgiving and/or Christmas day. This is good media. It is a “feel good” story. I suspect they will even interview a person or two glowing with thanks for the generosity of the donors. And for what? Imagine if the same energy that went into the turkey drive was applied to another single-moment event like combating NIMBY at a City Council meeting related to an affordable housing development. Or imagine if the same energy was spread out over a long period of time to support a Permanent Supportive Housing campaign or something similar to that? Imagine the long-term benefits to the kids of the families volunteering when they learn that social change comes from a prolonged strategy and effort to combat injustice, not a single day of turkeys.
There are skills and resources and excellent ideas in the general population. Charitable giving has become the default. I would assert that we can do more and better – that there are greater gifts to give than money.