Charity Alone is Not Enough

The title of this post is not a new revelation to me, and perhaps not to you; it is something I have known for as long as I’ve thought abut the issue.  But I had a graphic illustration of it this afternoon.

I flew into Boston earlier today, as I will be speaking at a conference at Harvard Law School that begins later today.  After settling into my hotel room in Cambridge, I spent some time wandering around the area, since I haven’t been here in quite some time.

On just about every street I walked down, I saw someone begging for money, several people on some of the streets.  I don’t know what their stories were; some had posters saying things like “homeless and hungry,” “need a job,” or “nothing going right.”  The disability of others was obvious (e.g. a one-legged man in a wheelchair, another obviously ill person).  But they all looked tired, worn, sad.

And I knew I could empty my wallet totally, giving each some money or some food and I wouldn’t make a dent.  I won’t say I wouldn’t have made any difference – someone would be less hungry, and would have at least the benefit of a smile and a kind word.  So I’m not saying charity doesn’t matter (although we can argue about whether giving a handout to people in the street is the good way to effectuate that charity).  But it is clear charity is not enough.  There are systemic issues that need to be dealt with, and we are doing a miserably bad of job of dealing with them.

What are we going to do about it?  The answer is not laws forbidding people from feeding people on the street, as some jurisdictions have done.  And it is not to run sprinklers on places the homeless sleep.  And it is not any of the other laws that have been enacted recently targetting the homeless.  But it is surely more than simple charity.

What are we going to do about it?