Yes, feed the homeless. But how?

by Marvin Olasky

Posted on Saturday, May 30, 2015, at 10:52 am

The battle goes on in dozens of cities. On one side stand those who for humanitarian, religious, or ideological reasons hand out free food to homeless folks. On the other side stand those with homes and businesses who don’t want said humans around. That prejudice is troubling when applied to jobless vets and other sympathetic but maligned characters, but I don’t think the owners are lying when they complain about men off their meds or looking for meth screaming at kids and defecating on lawns.

Biblically, the obligation of Christians to feed the hungry is clear. The question of how to feed them is not. When I researched this question during the 1990s, I sometimes interviewed homeless men close to Christian missions where they could get free lodging, food, and other essentials—but many wouldn’t go in, preferring to eat what nice passers-by would give them. The reason: They wouldn’t be able to do drugs or drink inside, and they’d be pushed to participate in some training that could put them on the trail to leaving dependency behind.

From what I’ve read, the situation hasn’t changed since then. The problem with just handing out food is that the practice enables some among the homeless to continue committing suicide on the installment plan, as the late, great Bob Cote of Step 13 in Denver, once homeless himself, used to say. Those handing out food will feel good about themselves, but they may be creating “toxic charity” or becoming examples for the next edition of a great book, When Helping Hurts.

So here’s the test I’d suggest: Before a city council passes an edict to prevent food distribution on the streets, it should do the equivalent of a careful environmental impact study—if we do it for frogs we should certainly do it for humans. If safe shelters have enough beds, it’s legitimate to forbid sleeping in parks. If shelters that do not enable self-destructive behavior distribute sufficient amounts of food, it’s legitimate to ban food distribution that underwrites destructive behavior.

But if the impact study shows holes in the safety net, cities should cease and desist from harassment of food-distributors. The long-term goal, of course, is to turn safety nets into a trampoline, but that’s as hard as turning swords into plowshares. Until that blessed day comes we should continue to feed the hungry, preferably at places that offer spiritual as well as material sustenance.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is Reforming Journalism. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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