by Rosemary Gray-Snelgrove
There’s something amiss in the Land of Charity. The Other Side in a difference in orientation existing for years has gained traction. So I’m declaring myself. I’m uncomfortable with the emergent power of Charity as Measurably Effective . And I thereby acquire membership in fogey-dum. If not also Doesn’t-Get-It-ville.
Here’s what I’m seeing.
The Band-aid Label on Out of the Cold
Starting in the early nineties with the growth of faith-based programs to provide shelter for homeless people in the winter months, there were volunteers and donors who saw there was a need for Johnny who stood panhandling on the neighbourhood corner to have a better place to sleep than his cardboard box. But among many of these aware folks, there was an ongoing refrain about how it was wrong to keep providing this band-aid solution. “Get the homeless housed” was the goal for these practical people. But I found their practicality to be somewhat fanciful. What we could achieve – and learn to do better and better – was to relieve suffering, to reduce misery, and restore some fatigued spirits for a little while, whether or not they were moving toward being housed. Yes, every person housed through the program was a victory. But quite often, our newly housed ‘guests’ bounced back to our Thursday night program and explained that they felt too lonely and didn’t like being shut indoors. “The walls were closing in”, said Jerry. The Housing Workers were sturdy truckers, but the ladies who tenderly massaged the beaten-up feet of the weary elderly walkers and smiled up into their eyes provided balm for the soul. They were Christ-like, Buddha-like to those who might never get safely settled anywhere.
Neither the worker bees nor the loving foot-care ‘drones’ provided the whole care needed for the homeless. Each was of great value, and not one more than the other. But again and again, the loving tenderness provided by many many volunteers was ignored in evaluations of the program. Sister Susan Moran, in floating her dream of a wide network of respite locations by opening one in a local church hall – so that eventually 65 volunteer doors opened up to wanderers — told many that she had in mind the personal touch that heals.
But the ‘band-aid’ denigration never stopped being flung at Out of the Cold.
The Elderly Men in Poverty
A downtown shelter for men over 55 years has operated since after WWI when it was clear that some veterans didn’t return to homes and loved ones, but to lonely lives without family and with little work. A club for such folk was set up and continues into the 21st century.
For many years, this place operated with a simple formula. Twelve hours daily, seven days a week, open the doors to ‘members’, who were welcome to come in for a morning refreshment, then a hot dinner, and accommodation all day with couches, a library, laundry machines, showers and a clothing room, with TV eventually, and computers. Managing of their modest pensions was on offer, visitations to hospital or rooms when a member fell ill, and a decent funeral provided for each when the end came. The company of each other, support workers present to keep the peace, and these fellows had a place to be. It was “their place”, it’s most important attribute.
A more recent ethos, representing the Measurably Effective approach, was introduced a few years ago. Ambitions to improve the lives of the members, to have skills learning, and arts courses available led to an expectation that men wouldn’t waste their time watching TV. The ‘hanging out’ room was moved to the second floor – harder for aching legs to climb. Evolution to the point where the club wasn’t needed seems the aim – whether or not that was ever articulated.
The most likely driver of such changes is, of course, the Economy. As government support lessens and donations are reduced, charitable organizations are required to justify their funding – if not their very existence.
But must the direction be as hard-nosed as I feel it to be?
Business Drives the Vision
The most distressing for me (soppy soul that I am) has been the reshaping of a grand old charitable venue located in a tough Toronto neighbourhood . New directions there are being openly driven by a business model, where visible change (measurable success) is the criterion for maintaining programs. Moving people through, with programs that help them move out of poverty, are approved. Less obviously transitional activities are questioned and required to demonstrate their value. Supportive housing is still available but the aim is now for people to move on after a couple of years.
I know little about the particulars here, but because I love the Community Centre feel of the old model, where local people living in poverty have the dignity of belonging to a fine honourable place, I long for the old belongingness – a place that is comfortable to the heart – to co-exist with the progressive learning and moving-on of the new snappy programs.
Must a business ethic determine and shape all charitable enterprises?
In Which Dwells Christ?
I write this as a Christian, who is in love with the light and peace that emanates from places where God is embedded. I don’t feel that golden energy in goal-driven programs, much as I understand the necessity for their existence. In harmony with places where love is the core – ah, there people can really grow and change delightfully.
I’m sure many of you have a different viewpoint! Please share it.