The Partnership for the Homeless

Giving in a Time of Need

Dear Friend of the Partnership:

With so many New Yorkers in desperate need, it is indeed difficult for caring people to decide whom - and how - to help. We face this dilemma every day when we pass so many outstretched hands on our streets, in our parks, or on our subways. We wonder how our money will be spent or question if, through our spare change, we’re simply enabling people to live on the street or perpetuating a bad habit.

Subway signs tell us not to give, to turn the other way. The police aggressively enforce “panhandling” laws. We’re frightened into believing that, if we support such behavior, we’re going to return to the city of the 1970s.

It does seem as if, after all these years, we’ve become inured to the problem. Believing that homelessness is simply an intractable reality of urban life. Its seeming unsolvability allows us to forget about the humanity of the people struggling mightily to get by. They become the “other”; we often blame them for their predicament. Or think of it as a life-style choice. And we then absolve ourselves of responsibility.

It’s surely easy to fall into this trap. To be truly exhausted by the need all around us. To believe that nothing can be done to solve it.

And yes, it can be easy to forget about the people themselves - the families with young children, seniors, veterans, people living with HIV/AIDS, all who try to make their way through the fog of homelessness.

So what should we do when faced with this dilemma?

There are, of course, no simple answers to how we should give. Perhaps, though, to help resolve our quandary we should turn to the 12th century philosopher, Maimonides.
Maimonides assigned the lowest score to giving begrudgingly, passing judgment on those who seek our help.

The greatest charity Maimonides said is helping people become self-reliant – or in today’s lingo, “empowering “ people.

So, as we think about our giving habits, especially with the holiday season soon upon us, it’s important to reach out generously and non-judgmentally to those we see hurting. But to attain the highest level of giving, it is most important to translate our charity into action, to work to transform our society into one where everyone has the chance to thrive. And one in which we no longer need to decide which person on the street is most deserving.

Surely, there are those who believe that homelessness can be solved if only personal responsibility was accepted for lifting yourself up. Under better circumstances, they may in fact be right. It would be ideal if homeless New Yorkers were able, on their own, to obtain quality health care to overcome illnesses, safe apartments they can afford, jobs that cover necessities, and an education that prepares them for living wage work.

New York City today, however, is a rather unforgiving place for countless thousands, and those better circumstances do not exist for them.

And responsibility must be a two-way street. As a society we also must take responsibility for creating an infra-structure of opportunity that will allow those in need to become economically secure and, ultimately, to prosper. Affordable and decent housing is surely an important start. But there are also other congruent issues at stake, such as inadequate access to health care, enervated neighborhood schools, stagnant local economies and few economic opportunities that must be incorporated into any response if we’re truly to address the underlying issues that drive so many into homelessness.

Unfortunately our social and political discourse bears little mention of those who are experiencing homelessness. There’s rarely a rallying cry to re-imagine a brighter future that explicitly includes these constituents. If homeless people are there at all, it’s often hovering in the shadows behind other matters. But with homelessness skyrocketing today, and with so many more who thought they were once secure teetering on the edge, this just might be a perfect moment in time to seriously heed Maimonides admonitions.

Sincerely yours,

Arnold S. Cohen
President and CEO