Dignity’s Role in Our Fundamental Beliefs
Last week I used a historical perspective to elaborate on the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte’s (MSC) fundamental belief that homelessness was created by society and can therefore be solved by society. This week, I’d like to focus on maintaining dignity in an effort to help readers understand another of MSC’s fundamental beliefs: to successfully end their homeless experience, men need support and assistance appropriate to their individual situations; providing too much assistance is wasteful, while too little support fosters failure. Let’s start by unpacking this belief statement.
To successfully end their homeless experience… what does this mean? As a provider of emergency shelter, basic needs, diversion, and rapid rehousing, MSC ‘s mission is not to eradicate poverty. When we can help a man move from the shelter into more appropriate housing (I’ll elaborate on how MSC defines more appropriate housing next week) and not return to the shelter then we’ve helped end that person’s homeless experience. What about men need support and assistance appropriate to their individual situations? First, let me clarify the difference between support and assistance. Support includes help that meets someone where they are today and even into the future. A case manager offers support, as does an AA group or church. A key ingredient in ending homelessness is helping people rebuild their personal support systems. Put another way, support is relational. Assistance, on the other hand, is more transactional. Providing a shelter bed, meals, and clothing to help during an immediate crisis is one form of assistance. Utilizing monetary resources to subsidize rental housing, pay for medications, or offer transportation to reunite someone with family are all forms of assistance. The important factor here is to identify very early on what and how much support and/or assistance each man needs (not wants). This leads to the third section in this statement: providing too much assistance is wasteful, while too little support fosters failure. Not only do we waste precious resources when we provide too much assistance, we also rob people of their dignity. I’ll come back to this in a moment. As I articulated last week, the underlying cause of homelessness is a missing or inadequate support system. Therefore, when we provide too little support based on an individual’s needs, we’re not addressing the root cause and setting them up for failure.
A few years ago Bob Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity, told a story about a father who was “emasculated” in his own home because he watched good-hearted people give presents to his children that he could not afford to provide. Lupton’s realization was transformational.
Only after becoming a neighbor was I able to see what we had done. Christmas Eve in that living room, I became painfully aware that not all charity is good charity.
Even the most kindhearted, rightly motivated giving – as innocent as giving Christmas toys to needy children – can exact an unintended toll on a parent’s dignity. Inadvertently I had done just that. Not just this time but many times.
This kind of charity has to stop, I vowed. The cost was just too great, the emotional pain too severe. There had to be a better way. 
Lupton goes on to propose The Oath for Compassionate Service which includes three tenets that really resonate with me: 1) Never do for the poor what they have (or could have) the capacity to do for themselves, 2) Limit one-way giving to emergency situations, and 3) Above all, do no harm. Many of Lupton’s ideas are not new, but he did a great job of stating a case that MSC believes. To truly help men experiencing homelessness we have to first help them keep their dignity. The best way to do this is to empower them to maintain as much control over their lives as possible. How? By offering encouragement and guidance (support), as well as short-term tangible assistance, while holding them accountable for making their own decisions, taking actions to improve their lives, and accepting the positive and negative consequences.
At MSC, we rephrase one of Lupton’s oath principles to state never do for someone what he can do for himself. So, if a man is working and can afford to buy his own bus passes, then giving him bus passes is wasteful. If another man is capable of going out and finding employment for himself, then having a case manager find him a job is not being supportive. Yes, in both of these examples we would be well-intentioned in our actions to do something for our men, but at what cost? What I’ve come to realize over the years, and Lupton more eloquently illustrates, is that the cost is much higher than I ever thought. The cost is robbing men of their dignity, which leads to despair, hopelessness, and dependency. None of us want that to happen, period! At MSC we especially don’t want that to happen because the end result can be permanent reliance on the homeless services system including living in emergency shelter instead of using emergency shelter as a short-term crisis intervention. I’ve had hundreds of conversations with men over the years who were unhappy because they felt that we weren’t doing enough for them. In most cases (we’re certainly not perfect and make our share of mistakes), they had come to want or even expect someone else to take ownership of their problems. Getting them to understand this can be very difficult, but empowering.
MSC’s other rationale for this belief statement is practical. There are finite resources in our community and we feel compelled to be good stewards of those resources and use them as effectively and efficiently as possible. It’s not really a matter of doing more with less. It’s about having the most impact with resources entrusted to us. By creating individualized plans with (not for) men, we were able to move 497 men into more appropriate housing last year. If everyone was given the same amount of support and assistance, supposedly in the name of fairness or to make programming easier, then MSC’s impact would have been a small fraction of what it was. It can be very hard and time consuming to help each man figure out what level of support and assistance he needs, but the end result is well worth it. Most importantly, we preserve our men’s dignity. We also make optimal use of scarce resources and produce a more significant impact for our community. This fundamental belief is another way MSC is ending homelessness.
Join me again next week when I discuss our third fundamental belief, Shelter is more appropriate than the streets, and most other forms of housing are more appropriate than shelter.
 Robert D. Lupton, Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How To Reverse It). (New York: HarpersCollins, 2011), p. 33.
 Ibid., p. 128.