“…a nun once said to me, ‘Mother Teresa, you are spoiling the poor people by giving them things free. They are losing their human dignity.’
When everyone was quiet, I said calmly, ‘No one spoils as much as God himself. See the wonderful gifts he has given us freely. All of you here have no glasses, yet you all can see. If God were to take money for your sight, what would happen? Continually we are breathing and living on oxygen that we do not pay for. What would happen if God were to say, ‘If you work four hours, you will get sunshine for two hours?’ How many of us would survive then?’
Then I also told them, ‘There are many congregations that spoil the rich; it is good to have one congregation in the name of the poor, to spoil the poor.’
There was profound silence; nobody said a word after that.”
~~Mother Teresa, In the Heart of the World
To my surprise, feeding the homeless is controversial. I did not know this, although, being oppositionally-defined as I can sometimes be, it would only have encouraged me. Nonetheless, I’m surprised that not everyone thinks hungry people should be given food.
‘People should get their needs met through the institutions and organizations we’ve already created to deal with the problems of hunger and homelessness,’ an acquaintance recently told me. But what if they’re not going to? What if the organizations, excellent though they may be, are woefully inadequate to the scale of the task, which is clearly the case in Dallas? What if significant numbers of people fall through the cracks? Some are not going to get their needs met with current resources; some are unable to; some — many — do fall. And for those, another approach is required.
To me, feeding the hungry seems self-evident, especially as a person who calls myself a Christian. “Feed my sheep,” says Jesus in John 21. He doesn’t say, “If my sheep are employed, or at least job hunting,” or “If they can conform enough to live in a shelter,” or “If they promise to take their antidepressants and visit their psychotherapists on a regular basis.” Jesus states simply, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” “Lord…you know that I love you,” Simon Peter replies. Jesus: “Feed my sheep.”
And even more direct is the bit in Matthew 25: “…I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me…as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.” Then follows the horrific fate awaiting those ‘goats at the left [hand]’ who decline to offer these kindnesses to their brothers and sisters — read that passage if you want to tremble!
The argument that feeding street people enables and perpetuates homelessness confuses me. Can you look for a job when you’re starving? Dirty? Freezing? Without an address? Did Mother Teresa perpetuate starvation by going on the streets of Calcutta and feeding the ‘poorest or the poor?’ Did she encourage the sick to get sicker because she tended to their medical needs?
Or does our plenty somehow shame us, that we are willing to let children live cold and hungry on the streets of Dallas while we buy designer tennis shoes and IPods for our own kids? Is this moral? Is it correct human behavior, religion aside? Is it even reasonable?
If rational self-interest is our guiding principle, does the terrible reality of homelessness and poverty in our own city and around the world serve that principle? Sometimes I wonder if our collective anger towards street people has something to do with their reminding us of the ludicrous, wasteful splendor in which most of us live, and perhaps also of the ubiquity of vulnerability all humans share.
True, feeding the homeless is only one part of the puzzle. A comprehensive plan is required to get people off the streets and into housing. Enlightened self-interest tells us that to do everything we can to solve the problems of homelessness and hunger in our city benefits us all. It tells us that that there are many paths to this desirable conclusion, that all kinds of help is needed: shelters, job training, treatment centers, rehabilitation programs, housing — yes, but also, surely, the simple service of alleviating people’s suffering directly, wherever they are, by giving them food when they’re hungry, a smile, a hug and a kind word when they’re lonely, a blanket and clothing when they’re cold.