Charity and Justice: we can end homelessness in our community vs manage it!

By: Susan Williams, Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church

Of any faith, charity and justice is core to the tradition.  But can our involvement in charity sometimes stand in the way of furthering justice?  There is a growing network of services across the city providing emergency shelter, meals, and second-hand belongings.  Many of us are involved in donating to and volunteering at the service organizations, and we feel blessed to be able to help.  But are we helping eliminate the need for the services in the first place?

“Give a man a fish and he eats for a day, but teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.”  We all know this familiar expression, and it begins to get at the balancing act between charity and justice.  We have a good idea what charity is: charity is helping someone in need.  Charity is needed as people are in crisis, but if we work only in the crisis mode, we miss seeing the whole big picture of Justice. Justice is more difficult to put into words.  Dictionaries define justice as doing right by everyone equally, being fair and impartial, or as determining the rights to which all are entitled.  Justice preserves an individual’s dignity in ways that charity cannot.  Working toward social justice means that we try to help shape society to be fairer to all and provide the basic rights to which we are all entitled.  If everyone who needed a job and a place to live could find work and affordable housing, homelessness would affect far fewer people.  We can spend so much energy and money meeting immediate needs that we do not do enough work toward addressing their causes. Preventing and ending homelessness is cheaper than shelters and services from hospitals, police, and others that are bandaid approaches.

Many cities across the US are developing plans to shift more emphasis from a band aid approach to homelessness to creating solutions to end homelessness. Within Minnesota there are several important initiatives to end homelessness within the next ten years.  In Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis, Heading Home Hennepin has been created. This is the 10-year plan to end homelessness by 2016 (, which works to prevent homelessness, create housing opportunities, do outreach to homeless folks, improve service delivery, implement systems change, and building capacity for self-support.

Heading Home Hennepin addresses a number of basic questions at the root of ending homelessness.  What do we believe are the shared rights of all citizens?  What needs to happen to end homelessness?  How will we work together to achieve this goal?  Some of the answers provided are mentioned below, and much more information is available at the organization web site.

The guiding principles listed by Heading Home Hennepin are:

–        All people deserve safe, decent, and affordable housing

–        Shelter is not housing

–        Providing services without housing does not end homelessness

–        Homelessness costs more than housing

–        Data is important

–        Prevention is the best solution

–        Ending homelessness requires a community-wide response

–        Ending homelessness is attainable

As citizens of Minnesota and as members of faith communities, we are all mandated to care for the neighbor, including those that are struggling with poverty and homelessness. As people of faith, we must consider this work and speak out in support of these measures to encourage our elected officials to implement and support this work with funding and policy efforts.

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