BY RELEVANT GLOBAL / CURRENT March 19, 2009

When Naomi Harnett was in Nepal, she knew already that it was a poor policy to give money to people begging on the street.

“In developing countries, you’re told not to give money to beggars,” Harnett says. “It’s even printed on your visa. The reason is that it enables the government to overlook their responsibilities to the poor.”

Still, when faced with street children who were hungry and destitute, Harnett felt she had to act.

“There was a group of children that would congregate daily on the main road in Thamel [in Kathmandu] and wait outside shops, asking for money and food,” she says. “They were all using solvents.” Many children in developing countries, she explains, inhale solvents because it takes the edge off their hunger pains and makes them feel warm. “A kid told me he was hungry, so I bought him food and a drink. He ate his lunch, then drank a portion of the drink, put the lid back on, got money for it from a shop and ran off. Later I saw him sniffing glue.”

It’s not a problem unique to developing countries. Many of us have been faced with the choice of whether or not to give money to the homeless. A man or woman approaches you on the street, asks for financial help, and regardless of all you’ve heard about giving handouts and enabling people, it’s difficult to turn away someone in need.

According to the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, between 700,000 to 2 million Americans are without shelter on any given night. Of this number, upwards of 66 percent have problems with alcohol or drug abuse. So, giving money to people may merely be enabling self-destructive patterns. We are told there are programs in place to help the homeless. But, if this is true, why do many homeless Americans seem to go without the help they need?

Harnett, who is also a social worker and runs a food bank, believes the answer lies in the lack of sustainable methods for helping the homeless to change their long-term social standing rather than just their short-term physical needs.

“The biggest thing keeping the homeless from getting help is a lack of substantial structural support from government agencies,” she says. “There’s no formal structure to assist people to get into a better position. There are food grants and small subsidies, but there’s nothing to assist people to get into a better place socially. That’s why it comes down to NGO’s, and they typically don’t have the resources to sustain the demand for service.”

Harnett has found this frustration in her outreach to the impoverished. Because the food bank she runs is a volunteer agency, and is supported by donations, it typically lacks the staff and resources to provide people with the lifestyle change that will help them long-term.

“Because we’re a community agency, we don’t have enough money, staff or resources to assist people as aggressively as we need to,” Harnett says. “We’re putting a band-aid on the problem without really changing it fundamentally.”

With a lack of community-based resources to supply their needs, and a lack of government  assistance to change people’s situation, should we be willing to give people immediate help when they ask for it? It’s a sticky question, Harnett says.

“You may be enabling them to cause harm to themselves,” she says. But, at the same time, the assumption that immediate assistance will be used irresponsibly is not always fair. “It’s complex, because you’re making judgments about people that may not necessarily be true,” Harnett says. “The right thing to do in the long term may not be the right thing to do in the short term.”

In some instances, immediate assistance may be the best way to help. “In some way, they may be getting their needs met,” Harnett says. “Everybody has a basic human right to food and water and shelter. At least you’re meeting one of their basic human rights and needs.”

But, to truly care for the homeless, Harnett believes we need a more proactive approach. It isn’t enough to simply shell out a few dollars from our wallet and hope for the best. Harnett believes that justice for the homeless requires greater action on our part.

“I think lobbying government to provide significant social supports for people, as well as volunteering at under-resourced community service agencies are the best ways to help the homeless,” she says.

This being said, Harnett doesn’t believe we should turn away everyone who asks for immediate assistance, but should try to assess each situation individually. “I don’t think there’s a blanket rule for anybody when it comes to that sort of thing,” she says. “If somebody asked for a drink of water, you wouldn’t say, ‘No. You need to ask the government to provide it for you.’ You’d give them the water. But there’s a perceived moral component when it comes to financial stuff, because people see money as something that’s more morally loaded than any other resource people would ask for.”

So, are we truly serving the homeless when they ask for money, or are we enabling them? The answer comes down to a case-by-case basis. Immediate assistance is not always to be shunned. But true care for the impoverished requires more than our money.

RELEVANT