What Can Be Worse Than Homelessness? 

Talking About Giving

Salvation Army Christmas Bell Ringres
Bell Ringers from John Martinez Pavliga (CC BY 2.0)

Deciding how to contribute to charity has become really complicated.  I used to just put a dollar or two into the cups of panhandlers in winter, buskers in summer, and the Salvation Army bell-ringers at Christmas-time. Then I joined a church whose members tithed, so I learned to give ten percent of my income every month. That was not an easy adaptation. It felt like a lot of money, but in a very short space of time it became the usual thing for me.

After I ended my relationship with the church, I continued to give ten percent of my income to people in need. Sometimes it was to individual people and sometimes to organizations. As I write this, though, I find that talking about charitable giving is a little unsettling.

No, Let’s Not Talk About It

My hesitation probably derives from the Christian admonition in Matthew 6:4, “But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  so that your giving may be  in secret. And your Father, who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” The implication here is that talking about your charitable works somehow negates their spiritual value.

What this means today, though, is that millions of people give in secret to organizations that spend a fortune on advertising and administration. Maybe if we didn’t keep our giving a secret, the charities would feel more inclined to spend our money wisely.  In any case, that’s not what I want to talk about.

Like most people, I want to help those less fortunate, but I have limited resources. I can be talked into giving too much but I have also sometimes been so hard up as to give less than I probably should. That ten percent thing actually makes a good standard to try to follow. It’s tied to what you have coming in, not to what you think others have going out.

Woman's hand holding US dollars
Donation to Charity (CC0)

This year, though, I find that I am making new decisions around charity.  If writing about it here will stymie my chances in the hereafter, I’m willing to take that risk.  It seems to me that it’s something we should talk about; we should air some of our clean linen. Our collective donations mean that there are many millions of dollars involved, so we really ought to give it at least as much public attention as we give to the cost of electricity or the cable bill.

Helping the Homeless

For many years, I have donated to Habitat for Humanity: money when I had it, physical strength when I had it, and volunteer time when I had neither. Homelessness seemed to me to be the most serious social problem that I could try to do something about.

I was first inspired by a student whose life was changed by having a Habitat for Humanity home. She was a single parent with three children and after being housed was able to go to college. When I was a college instructor, her speech to one of my classes was so uplifting that I volunteered that year to help with a local construction project. She had explained that recipients of houses have to go through a thorough vetting process before being considered, and after being accepted they have to contribute five hundred work hours to the construction of a Habitat home. They usually bring in family members and friends to help in order to meet that commitment.

Hands raised to volunteer
Volunteer (CC0)

I volunteered on projects in both Alberta and California for three years, and when I realized I was not strong enough to help as much as I would like in the construction side of things (I was actually at the top of a ladder holding a very heavy nail gun when I made this decision), I volunteered at the Habitat for Humanity Restores in both places. These stores recycle construction and renovation materials, and the proceeds go to the Habitat for Humanity organization. For a number of years, I have also donated in the form of charity gift-giving, and was thinking about doing the same again this Christmas. But, things have changed.

Preventing Something Worse

As serious as homelessness still is, I have recently come to realize that the new political landscape has created a hostile environment for many of my friends and neighbours. Suddenly, white supremacists, misogynists, and racists of various kinds have felt empowered to publicly abuse and insult people. Swastikas and hate messages are appearing on walls, and visible minorities are becoming afraid to use public transport in some places. President-elect Trump has denounced these activities, but they continue nonetheless—probably because he inspired them in the first place.

Graffitt of swastika on a wall
Graffiti of Swastika in Wellsville, NY. Source: USA Today

Immigrants and refugees are nervous, and instead of feeling safe and welcome in their new land they are feeling insecure and fearful. I came to Canada from overseas, and I was an immigrant before I became a citizen. However, because I am white no-one has ever told me to go back where I came from or to change the clothes I wear. Let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not about immigration or refugee status; it’s about race.

Anyway, the time, money, and talents I have to devote to others is limited and I want to use them to best advantage. Right now, the most pressing need seems to be to try to counteract this surge in hate. For people in the United States, the article A 12-Step Program for Responding to President-Elect Trump in the New York Times is a good starting point. It provides inspiration also for those of us who live outside the US to consider how best to be of help. We can all make positive steps in our personal relationships and local communities to counteract fear, provide information, offer support, and encourage diversity as the article suggests.

This got me wondering how I could redirect my charitable resources this year. I can seek out a refugee support group, or a group fighting Islamophobia. Maybe groups trying to counteract misogyny could use my charity dollars, or a group helping at-risk children learn to read. The New York Times article lists some of those organization in the US, but I am having trouble finding Canadian equivalents. I hope this means that the need in Canada is not as great. Otherwise, if any readers know of appropriate causes that are fighting against hatred, please comment below here and provide website links. I will be happy to use this blog as a vehicle to pass that information on.

Making Hatred Difficult

Habitat for Humanity, you still have a special place in my heart, but the landscape around us has shifted. The wave of hate may be a temporary blip, and I sincerely hope that is so, but for the time being I want to find a way to counteract it if I can.  How sad it is that there is now something more dangerous and more pressing than homelessness.

Group of people and dogs sitting on sidewalk
Homeless Group in San Francisco Source: Franco Folini (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Or perhaps, Habitat for Humanity, you had it right all along. Housing newcomers, the homeless, and at-risk families is the first step in a solution to a whole host of social problems. When housed, people can more easily apply for jobs, interact with social services, find medical clinics, attend schools, join faith groups, and shop for groceries.

When they live in our neighbourhood, the people whom we thought of as different from us become people who say “hello” when passing on the street, help us to shovel snow from the sidewalk, and let us know when we accidentally leave the garage door open. Housing people helps them to integrate into our communities—to become less “the other” and more “us.”

Whichever charities I decide to support in the coming year, I hope they will provide support and inspiration to individuals and groups who are being victimized by hate groups. I hope they will also educate the haters, so that they understand the harm that they do. Most of all, I hope that they will direct most of the donated dollars to raising people up until they are strong enough to stand without help. Perhaps the recipients can then show us all how to live without fear and hatred.




  1. I think action speaks louder than words alone! I donate to mail in organizations but give to a shelter, Salvation army and local food drives. I don’t work for Kroger’s but if you have them “round up for local food banks” they say an honest fact they “fed 9 million people last year!” In our local Ohio region 428,000 people were fed alone. I may actually find out it was 9 billion across the country. But my memory is questionable. 🙂

      1. I accidentally told a friend this and she mistakenly thought I meant like communism! (Seriously?!)
        I believe we need to care and work together. It is probably the only way we will survive.
        Meanwhile, I have been sad for Aleppo. Paris, France turned the lights off the Eiffel Tower is unity with hoping that the fighting will finally end. . .

        1. It’s too bad that not enough people understand the value of social action. Calling it communism as a pejorative is to misunderstand both community action and communism.

          I, too, fear that Aleppo is doomed. We can only wait and watch.

          1. Thanks for your immediate response and understanding, too. I just get dismayed, but realize we need to keep on going and being positive is the only way to survive emotionally intact. Hugs for your communal empathy for Aleppo.

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