Earlier this month, I attended a professional conference in Portland, Oregon. I encountered many homeless people, so it made me think about my privileged role of flying to their city, having a safe hotel room, conducting my business and leaving. What can, or should, I do?
At the conference, I posted a request for how I could donate to a Portland organization that helps the homeless. It seemed like a decent thing to do. It would be a small way of acknowledging my connection to Portland, a city I have enjoyed visiting many times.
But a colleague from Idaho, Dr. Katherine Himes, offered a story that challenged my sentiments. Am I doing something just so I feel good? Is the transaction, arms-length donation what is really needed?
Katherine opened my eyes, by telling me about a new organization that utilizes collective impact to address homelessness. In particular, people and organizations collaborate in a deliberate and meaningful manner to create a community-wide approach to help people get back on their feet.
Wyatt Schroeder, CATCH, Inc.’s executive director, explained the model to Katherine this way: Rather than leave a bag of clothing on the doorstep of a homeless support organization and feel like that transaction will ignite societal change, consider a slight shift in behavior. Put people first. Call the support organization and ask what help is needed. This requires time, but leads to a relationship of empathy, empowers others by honoring their journey, and puts everyone on equal footing.
Thanks to Katherine, I am still figuring out what I will do. I cannot really have an ongoing relationship with homeless people (and those that help them) in Portland, Oregon. A short-term transactional approach (giving money) seemed OK. But now, I’m home. So what is my relationship to homeless people where I live? What kind of effort am I willing to make to dig into the social change aspects of homelessness?
I don’t know. I recognize I protect myself from much of the world’s suffering by choices I can afford to make as a secure, middle-class home owner. But I am being pulled by a call for community – for real connection and for partnership rather than paternalism.
Thank you to Katherine for posing a stronger question, even if I do not yet have an answer.
FYI, consider several previous blog posts related to people who are homeless, substandard housing, and what kind of help is needed or is best: