Today, I would like to talk about an incident I had while doing outreach work for the homeless (that is, giving out food, water, hygiene kits, and other essentials).
I’m going to describe why outreach becomes surrender.
Everything was going well. We were passing out the food to people in need (burritos with tin foil covering them, to keep them hot), and getting to know the homeless folk. We were being kind, considerate, compassionate. We were distributing our resources and the resources of others, as well as spending our own time.
In other words: we were making the attempt to reach out to others. We were attempting to help those in need.
And then, suddenly, all of that changed.
The groups (which were supposed to be separate but started to unwittingly congregate …) started to cluster, causing a kind of traffic jam.
I was already trying to take in all that I was seeing: The poverty, the need, the loneliness, the alienation, the vulnerability, the helplessness: All within the homeless population. But then suddenly, a cop started to freak out at us, adding a complicated dynamic to this already difficult situation.
These were his words, paraphrased generally but with all the content that I heard (the comments of which I will comment upon in a moment): “If you want to help the homeless, donate to the shelter.” “Get out of here.” “Giving out tin foil is drug paraphernalia, and they are going to use the tinfoil for drugs.” “Use the crosswalk—” (Even as he was yelling at us to get out of the area, forcing us to cross the street not at the crosswalk.)
That, my friends, is why outreach becomes surrender.
I don’t want to be biased towards the officer (or the organization, of which the officer represents), whose job is to keep citizens safe, to protect and to serve. But those were pretty much his words, and I am going to analyze the phrases accordingly, to tease out the implications and implicit (and even explicit) assumptions, and I am going to, indeed, stand on conviction, even if it’s controversial and somewhat polarizing.
The first problem. He tells us to just “donate to the shelter.” Okay, great idea. Great idea, indeed! As if I have the money and resources to donate to this shelter. Not only that, but it is that precise organization that shut me down from working with them, on multiple occasions (the infamous bad beginnings I had, where they literally wouldn’t let me work with them for unknown and unspecified reasons …). Why would I donate to an organization that won’t (and wouldn’t) work with me? Why would I trust them? Why should I trust them?
You can see the problem: Demanding we just “donate to the shelter” when they wouldn’t even accept me, and probably many others, for volunteers.
The second, and bigger problem. The idea that these organizations and power structures have, essentially, bought out the homeless. That’s right, you heard me: They own the homeless. They dictate what we do to help the homeless (“donate to the shelter”). It’s dangerous to want to cut out the social aspect, too. What we were doing isn’t, as you can probably imagine, just the obvious action of providing basic needs. We were also trying to give the homeless people the time of day, and show them we care. We were trying to create and build community.
I could go on all of this for a long time, but I think two basic points stands out with that remark, given my own personal experience and what I have heard: The homeless are not people to be talked to, associated with, or fed. If we want to help, we have to “donate to an organization.” That is telling us, indeed, what to do with our resources and our time.
And that is wrong, precisely because this is a democracy, not a dictatorship. It violates our right to associate with who we want to associate with. It violates our right of what we do with our resources. Maybe they can come up with all kinds of laws about why that isn’t the case, but from where I stand, we have certain inalienable rights, and that includes helping those in need. That is in fact not just a right, but a duty. A moral duty, with us as moral agents, with the capacity to choose.
I do understand that part of the problem was safety. But you saw the comments. Paraphrased, not precise, but pretty close to the content and sentiment of the words spoken. Not to mention the actual tone which was used (a hostile one, as you can imagine).
The third problem, exemplified by the comment about the drug paraphernalia: An assumption is made, that all homeless people are drug addicts and drug seekers. That is, I believe, a stereotype. A stereotype that must be recognized and not ignored.
The fourth problem: Telling us to leave. It’s fine in terms of safety, of course, but such blatant content is an abuse of power. Nobody was hurt, and nobody was going to get hurt, because our group knew what we were doing, there was just a couple of mix-ups and some naivety involved. But that happens. There were better and more humane ways for the officer to make it clear that our safety was potentially threatened. That would be by telling us to continue along, and to emphasize that aspect, without unneeded threats and intimidation.
So: That is a lot. In conclusion, in summary, what do I have to say about all of this? Well, I tried to represent what happened as best as I could, and I probably sound biased, but if you’re sympathetic to my mission and my goals, you’ll see why this all upsets me greatly. Mainly, because, again, for the ten millionth time, the homeless are literally being oppressed, being labeled as drug seekers, and not worth our time, and the like. All of this is implicit and explicit. All of this is obvious with the comments I tried to quote and represent.
And that, my friends, is why outreach (the attempt to reach out to others in need) becomes surrender: We had to surrender to the will of someone else, an authority figure that had no compassion, at least in that moment, for people in need. The homeless were bought by that organization, and we were essentially invading that territory. We had no right to distribute resources to people in need, because they were drug addicts and were not worth our time. Even though I don’t need to say why that is an unjust stereotype that only perpetuates destruction towards other people, some of who are innocent.
But we must always keep in mind Hegel’s dialectic: thesis, antithesis, and then synthesis. In this case, it would be the bad (when and why the outreach became surrender to power structures rather than to people in need), synthesized with the good.
This is what happened that was good. The team leader was very professional and brave with how he dealt with the aggressive officer. He handled the situation with grace and conviction, and he should be proud of himself, and I’m proud that I get to work with him. The other good thing was how grateful the homeless themselves were to us, telling us things like, “God bless you.” In that sense, we definitely made a connection, and that is what matters.
And this was what was also good: I met my friend again, my friend Ezra. We talked. Indeed, my friend, the one that I made a video recording of a long time before seeing him on this outreach, how I knew him in the first place.
I was happy, because I had met him on my own terms (in the past), and had treated him with kindness and dignity on my own, and he remembered me. He saw me. He said hello to me. He treated me like a fellow human. He remembered I had tried to be kind to him. He seemed better than he was before, didn’t seem to have any delusions, and told me that perhaps he would get housing soon, and that he’d been everywhere.
The synthesis being: There may be corruption, but it becomes worth it because the people you help do remember, and you are making an impact, even if it doesn’t seem that way.
So, in conclusion, of all of this insanity and madness: I was disappointed with the power structure at play, and the power play itself, and the obvious oppression. I was disappointed that after I’d found a legitimate organization to work with, authority figures wanted to shut us all down (which was especially hurtful for me because of my own experiences with being shut down).
And that is why it is so hard to help those in need.
Because, indeed, outreach, or reaching out, becomes surrender to the people in power. To the officers of the law. To the representatives of rich organizations. To political figures.
But I’m not surrendering.
Knowing me, I’m going to reach out: You know I’m not surrendering.