We’ve been saying it for years, but programs like The Homeless Grapevine are the wave of the future. The non-profit sector is undergoing an interesting Darwinian struggle, and, like our for-profit counterparts, adaptation and innovation are the keys to survival. Despite the generosity of the American people, many non-profits, especially those that work with homeless people, are increasingly being squeezed.
We have a government that is demanding more results with fewer resources, and yet continues to abdicate more of its responsibilities to our sector. We also face a funding public that is growing increasingly tired of paying to fix problems that never seem to find solutions. The programs that do the most good are often the ones who get the least attention and funding.
Our recent interviews with Mayor Frank Jackson and the DC Central Kitchen’s Robert Egger (see our front page story) indicate that the non-profit sector may be moving toward a period in which they embrace programs modeled on the idea of socially conscious capitalism. The success of Fair Trade Coffee, clothing, etc. and organic foods is a testament to the fact that customers are concerned about the social and environmental effects of how they spend their limited dollars.
In Cleveland, this idea is still getting off to a rocky start. Programs like The Homeless Grapevine and the Community Hiring Hall have had some trouble finding the support we need from the community and partners in our sector. The notion that homeless people are adults and are in need of living wage jobs to support themselves and their families, just like everyone else, seems to elude many providers and the public at large.
The misconception that homeless people don’t want to work has somehow become gospel, but the truth is that most homeless people have jobs and still don’t make enough to survive.
We as a sector have taken the path of pity too far in trying to fund our efforts to “help” homeless and impoverished individuals. We have developed paternalistic attitudes that rob individuals of the ability to decide their own fates, and give them very little stake in their own future. We encourage them to sign up for more services, make them endure bureaucratic nightmares just to get on waiting lists, and often treat them like inmates in our shelters. They endure this because they are usually forced to by circumstance. If given the choice between a living-wage job or staying in shelter, most homeless people would eagerly take the job. Where we have failed as a sector is in truly fighting to give them that choice.
We need to do better as a sector to work together for sustainable solutions to the problems we fight. Since we cannot give free housing to everyone, we must equip and empower the individuals we serve to obtain it themselves. We cannot necessarily force the business community to pay livable wages, but we can lead by example and structure our own programs to do so.
Revenue-generating non-profits offer the opportunity to employ individuals who need work, provide services and materials to the public in a socially conscious way, and sustain themselves if managed properly. They also offer the chance for far fewer whiny pledge drives, much happier and fulfilled clients, and a better-served public. Obviously, it doesn’t make sense for every non-profit to operate in this fashion; but we should all be more concerned about the ways we manage our resources. If we continue to let government force us to “fight each other for scraps,” we will only let homeless people and our organizations become more marginalized.
Copyright Homeless Grapevine, Cleveland Ohio Issue 78 October 2006