Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Limits of Charity

My wife and I spent the night in a church with three homeless families. Each night, different volunteers like us stay overnight to act as hosts to people who hopefully will soon have their own places to live. These people are from our community. The volunteers come from sixteen different churches and synagogues. The congregations take turns hosting the families.

Earlier in the day, other volunteers had welcomed the families and cooked dinner for them. They were available to help the children with their homework and to play with the little ones, so that the parents could have a little time to take care of whatever they needed to. Or if they preferred, they could just retire to their rooms and have time to spend with their families. In the morning, we set out breakfast and cleaned up, the children went to school, their parents went to work or to look for work, and we locked up the church and went home.

I have only met a few other of the volunteers, but those I have talked with are motivated by all the best concerns for other people, and they are putting their concerns into action. The program gives them the valuable experience of being able to spend time and talk with people who they probably otherwise wouldn't meet, and the homeless people likewise get the opportunity to see that there are people who care about them, at a time when it may seem that the world isn't a very caring place.

Aside from the nights that the volunteers put in, an even greater effort goes into making this program work. A substantial effort is required to recruit the volunteers, train them, schedule them, and make arrangements with participating congregations. The participating congregations also put a lot of work into helping the homeless families during the day, in conjunction with various agencies.

All in all, a lot of money and time goes into helping a very small number of families – three families a night. Three out of thousands of homeless families. A very worthwhile effort, but so terribly inadequate.

I have been told by tea-partiers that government shouldn't pay for entitlement programs that provide services to needy people, because that is a job that churches and charities can do more efficiently. The tea-partiers were talking about programs like the one that we volunteered for, which drew volunteers from sixteen congregations to fill 120 volunteer shifts per month to house three families a night. Three families out of thousands in need.

Do the tea-partiers think that all that we need to do is help three out of thousands? Do they expect that thousands more volunteers will suddenly come forward if the government programs shut down? Do they not understand that it would be a far more efficient use of everyone's time and money to hire people to run homeless shelters than to organize volunteers to do the task? Do they not see that there will never be enough volunteers?

We spent the night with three families. We spent the same night with thousands more who were just as homeless and just as needy, but who did not have a warm church to sleep in. We all spent the night with tea-partiers who think three out of thousands is good enough.

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