Thursday, December 25, 2008


Christmas was always one of my favourite times of the year. It is not so much the giving and receiving of presents, but the presence of others that saves me from myself. After all, Christmas is one of the few times of the year I can truly take time off, as others are more involved in other aspects of their lives and are less concerned with legal hassles, except for the few odd emergencies I worked through in previous years.

While I love Christmas and always look forward in anticipation with the lights, the music and the whole idea of starting off fresh in a new year, it is also a time of year when my cynicism reaches fever pitch. The Salvation Army commercials come on about this time of the year, flashing their statistics on your TV screen, asking you to give, give, give. Food banks are forever predicting a "crisis" of sorts if some white knight or white knights do not come to the rescue with hundreds of thousands of dollars, and the homeless shelters promise to feed the hungry a turkey dinner.

This is a "feel good" time of the year for people who are comfortable. Giving money to a food bank, or a financial donation to a shelter seems to be the thing to do to ease oneself of the guilt of never having to have been a recipient of such a service. For those among us that give very large donations, most do not mind the press coverage - especially a company, as it shows "good corporate citizenship" (even though the same company receiving the heaps of good press may actually be one that pays low wages and treats their workers badly -- but how do we know?). Despite the "good citizenship" deeds that tend to be performed at this time of the year, we hardly give a thought about how the people at the receiving end feel about being at the receiving end. Has anybody ever asked them?

The charitable sector has become ingrained into our political culture to the point whereby we do not really think of those that receive our help, as any more than people who are needy, dependent and in some way, damaged goods. While this is certainly not a conscious assumption, nor is it present in every case of giving ... as I do know personal friends who have formed more reciprocal relationships with the people they set out to help. Unfortunately, this is an exception, not the rule.

When I speak to people who have gone to food banks or other charitable services on a regular basis (as opposed to going only for that one year when times were tough), I learn most of these folks have a very low self-esteem. Some do not believe they are "deserving" of a better life, such as a life where they would have enough resources to reasonably make choices. While they are thankful for the help, they do not see themselves as empowered human beings that are viewed by others as individuals with capabilities, talents and resources of their own. A portion of this group try to steer themselves away from charitable services, thinking they would "rather starve" than accept this help from anyone.

When prospective donors hear about this subset of people who refuse help, they are viewed as "mentally ill" or simply possessing "pride". However, when donors to these services are asked about the people they are "helping", once again - this population is viewed as somewhat helpless, dispossessed and unwanted, although they do acknowledge that some people are getting help as a result of "falling on hard times through no fault of their own". The complicated pseudo-relationship and inherent schema that is developed between the donor and the recipient is rarely considered in how recipients come to view themselves, or their own futures - when in my view, it has EVERYTHING to do with this attitude.

This is not about the people that provide services in this field, the thousands of volunteers that toil daily to sort through donations, others that appeal to the media for more donations and other persons, usually paid personnel that provide direct service to the recipients. It is more about the schema produced and not challenged by these same thousand points of light and the media that backs them about the necessary dichotomy between the helpers and the recipients, roles that are not portrayed as interchanged or interdependent. This role is further entrenched by the screening processes used by such charities to ensure each recipient is "deserving" of help.

Similar to any targeted welfare scheme, prospective recipients are encouraged to disengage themselves as actors and potential participants in their futures, but to focus on everything that is wrong with their lives ... in fact, as with many welfare schemes, one has to prove they have depersonalized themselves and spoiled their identity to the point that the helper is satisfied they have done all they can to reduce themselves to nothing. At the same time, nothing is offered up to address the situation that brought the recipient through their doors in the first place. Many trained in the service delivery model identify with the "spoiled identity" or "damaged goods" version of their entrails, as opposed to questioning why there appears to be a greater number of people each year in similar given circumstances.

While even the social work model professes to work against systemic barriers in favour of progressive social change, this is not what happens when people check their identities at the door to get the so-called "help" they need. The helper is there to "correct" supposed personal deficits of the disadvantaged, as opposed to helping them break barriers to join the "advantaged" part of society. For many social workers and others in related helping professions, they cannot even imagine their clients qualifying to do their jobs, for example.

While most helpers do not necessarily "blame the victim", they do nevertheless, view the victim as somewhat defective. The homeless man is "mentally ill". The single parent with two children in tow is always in abusive relationships. The single man who lost his apartment needs to learn how to balance his budget. The chronically unemployed are there because they are illiterate, lack high school and likely, do not have any skills. When other statistics are presented that show that recipients as a group look more similar to the group of "helpers" than they are dissimilar, helpers resist this interpretation.

I have focused some of my time over the years to talk to people who do not visit food banks, go to homeless shelters or seek other types of counseling assistance - even though their life circumstances and their needs may be identical to those that do use such services. While my observations may be anecdotal in nature, the same themes have emerged over time through different voices. What I have learned from these folks is instrumental and should be not only acknowledged by those that deliver services, but incorporated in their overall philosophy and structure of how they approach anybody coming through their door.

1. People want to be viewed as capable and willing to do for
themselves. A hand out in any way, shape or form makes
the person feel they are viewed as dependent and incapable
of doing for themselves, that somebody with "capability"
must do these things for them.

2. People want a hand up, not a hand out. Traditional charities
are very bad at recognizing that people want out of the
"welfare trap" more than they may believe they need
immediate help. People refusing services know they will not
get a job, get out of poverty or get into decent (and
independent) housing through the charitable service. In
other words, their programs do not work.

3. Even if the service is successful in getting the recipient
"housing", for example, the roof over their head becomes
a social service and not just a necessary product for living
in the community. Homeless people are assumed to be
incapable of living on their own and keeping their housing.
People with mental health issues are assumed to have
issues, outside the fact they are poor and nobody will hire
them, which led to them becoming homeless. Everybody
is deemed to want and need "subsidized" housing, despite
the fact the rules for this program tend to cripple initiative
and force people to remain in poverty.

People that do not want these services may need help to
secure an apartment, but after that, they do not want to
be fodder and continue to be a "cause" for ongoing income
for the charity. (The fact of this matter is those that can
live independently are often falsely assumed to not need
ANY help at all).

4. People want help to reach their full potential, not to
cripple it. Most of those refusing help do not want to
work in low-wage, insecure and low-skilled employment.
They want assistance in developing their career potential,
even though doing this may require funds for retraining,
partial employer subsidies and innovative partnerships
in one's respective community. Charities get paid to
"place" people, not get them out of poverty.

5. People want to work with their helpers as partners in
making systemic change. They want their helpers to
challenge employers that appear to not want persons
with disabilities working for them, or only want them if
the person is happy at working for half-wages. They
want to work with the helpers at making changes so that
the services of charities become less and less necessary.

6. Many of those refusing help feel that their presence as
"clients" of these agencies only "proves" demand and
thus, continues to generate ongoing funding for these
charities, regardless if their personal situation improves.

7. With regards to being given food, clothing, housing, etc.
- people feel they are not allowed to make choices. Why
is nobody giving those in need the necessary RESOURCES
to make these choices on their own, as opposed to making
these choices for them?

The very presence of these charities and the encouragement through the media, community influences and other forces, encourages those that want to "do good" to continue to donate and to otherwise continue to "prove" the legitimacy of these charities, as well as to continue to ignore and disregard the need for true systemic changes that would negate the need for the same.

We go ahead and have our Christmas with our families, go to work the next day or day after, and give to some charitable donation because society expects us to pick up the slack from the government. We do not think about the fact that continuing to support the status quo is taking away choices from those that can otherwise handle them with the resources given directly to them, instead of through an expensive and controlling bureaucracy. We do not think that we may be contributing to the continuation of the problem, not necessarily because we want to, but by donating to the charities, there is still no way any donor can reasonably review the success of any such charity in actually changing things for the people they serve.

Except next year at this very same time, even more people will be knocking on the doors of these same charities, many more in even more desperate circumstances. By continuing this cycle, we have to ask ourselves why we are not asking the correct questions and demanding to know why the more people give, the greater number of people end up in need ...

Think about what you are going to do in 2009, whether what you do will actually make a difference (systemic change) or just continue the same old, same old. If you ask me what I want to do, it is the former -- hands down!

Your thoughts?

No comments: