Why I Support Regulating the Public Feeding of Homeless People
Several years ago in Atlanta, Georgia I met a woman living under a bridge that completely changed my life and how I viewed homeless services. You didn’t have to be a social service worker or medical professional to see that Angela was dying underneath that bridge. Meeting Angela broke my heart but it was what happened behind the scenes that changed me. I was with a group of Christians. I turned to them and I asked, “What are you doing for her? How are you helping Angela?” They responded that they were bringing her sandwiches – that’s when I realized that sandwiches are not enough. People need housing, jobs, and health services.
See, until I met Angela underneath the bridge that day, I thought that whatever you could do to help a homeless person, well, just do it. Let’s just say the level of your support was making chocolate chip cookies. If you can make cookies, then go and make cookies and then hand them out to people. I used to think that was good enough. The reason I use a chocolate chip cookie reference is because I used to know a mom and her daughter that made cookies, because that’s all they can afford. They would then go to a local homeless shelter and hand them out. And that’s the point. Instead of randomly giving away food in a park, this mother and daughter team went to the local shelter with their homemade cookies, supporting the local shelter in helping people.
I once spent two hours In Tompkins Square Park in the East Village of New York City. During those two hours, five churches came and fed the same people. I am guessing that if I stayed most the afternoon over twenty churches would have come and fed the same people that day. Interesting enough, the Bowery Rescue Mission is right around the corner. If all of those churches had taken their food to the Bowery Rescue Mission (also the same Jesus) the Bowery Rescue Mission could have saved on their food budget and spent the money saved on housing, jobs, and health services.
I realize it’s not as sexy to stand up in front of the church folk on Sunday morning saying that you “helped another organization” rather than saying “you fed the lost.” But the truth is, if churches would simply coordinate and work with other organizations, together we’d make a serious impact in fighting homelessness and getting people off the streets.
I will be point blank honest – public feedings often do more harm than good. Yes, it makes the person giving the food feel especially good, and there is merit in that; we should feel good about our charitable works. But public feedings do very little to end homelessness. In fact, in many ways public feedings maintain homelessness.
When I was producing a weekly TV show on homelessness, we were featuring a ministry that fed people under a bridge. We met a large homeless man with an established camp under a bridge to interview. The man’s name was “Bear”, and he had clearly been there for quite some time. He had a few tents and the camp layout was setup rather nicely. After I got the video gear ready and Bear’s dog to be quiet, I started to ask him questions. The optimum goal I needed was for this man to talk about how he’d go hungry if this ministry didn’t bring him food. I asked “So Bear, if Billy didn’t bring you food what would happen to you? Bear’s response shocked me. He said, “Well, the nuns bring me breakfast every day, and those guys in the warehouse over there give me a burrito at lunch.” You just had to look at Bear to see he wasn’t going hungry and now, out of his own mouth, he told us proof that we were enabling him (and others) to remain homeless.
Now please realize that I understand that there are lots of people going hungry in this great country of ours. I get that. The point that I am trying to make is that just feeding people in a park can actually hurt homeless people more than it helps them. Food is a powerful motivator. Many homeless services provide food, mail services, showers and laundry, which are touch point services so our homeless friends can visit and connect with us on a regular basis. Often we can begin to establish relationships that will help that person get out of homelessness. In addition, our homeless friends often have medical needs that go unattended. By having to connect with a homeless services agency every so often, if a homeless person is hurt, a case manager can help that person connect to needed services. Like with Bear, when people are merely given food in the park, there is little motivation for them to connect with places that can help. It’s actually OK to feed people in a park as long as you’re also taking tangible actions to help them get out of homelessness.