How could it be that, in this richest country at the richest time in human history, some 49 million Americans are hungry, including 33 million adults and 16 million children? In New York City alone, 1.4 million – disproportionately represented by women and children, the working poor, the elderly and disabled – rely on soup kitchens and food pantries to meet their basic food needs. How could that be? And how could we – as caring human beings – have allowed ourselves to become immune to the suffering of so many?
I’m as guilty as the next guy, reflexively averting my eyes when I pass a homeless, destitute person on the street while I take inventory of the moral failures that give me an excuse to turn away. He’s an alcoholic or a drug abuser – bad choices that have put him here. She’s not really hungry – just hustling. Or, he won’t use the money for food – he’ll just buy booze and smokes. (By the way, if that last one keeps you from helping, try carrying around a few fast food gift coupons.)
I recently completed a dozen years leading an advocacy organization working for Mideast peace and reconciliation. In fact, most of my professional career has been dedicated to institutional work with an emphasis on sustainable, scalable reforms rather than on individual helping services. Working at the wholesale level, rather than retail, has always made more sense to me. Repairing broken systems as the path to healing broken lives.
But as I take a time-out between jobs to clear my head and figure out what’s next, I’ve committed to adding regular, weekly direct service volunteering to my personal plan. After trying out a number of volunteer options, I found my home at an impressive East Harlem nonprofit called New York Common Pantry dedicated to reducing hunger while promoting dignity and self-sufficiency; one of many thousands such organizations working around the country.
For the past decade, I’ve worked on behalf of the “other” – the excluded and neglected – half a world away. Now I find myself engaged with the “other” who I pass every day on the street. And I’ve learned a few things along the way.
- I’ve learned that homelessness, and for that matter poverty, is exhausting. Spend even a few minutes in a roomful of a hundred or two homeless folks sitting or sprawled on folding chairs, the walking wounded waiting for a hot lunch or a hot shower. What you see are exhausted men and women grateful for a few minutes of respite, for having a safe place to be for a while. What you hear is mostly silence. The silence of exhaustion.
- That the existence of a “social safety net” for the poor is an illusion, a convenient and self-serving justification for reducing taxes on those of us with means while avoiding guilt and its alternative: collective responsibility for prioritizing and adequately funding services for the hungry and poor.
- That mental illness and addiction are surely widespread, but not universal, factors that contribute to homelessness and hunger. That no small number of homeless folks, more than we care to admit, are people not so different from us who have come upon hard times because of unemployment or illness. You can see it in their eyes; the feeling of shame and despair among those who have known better days.
But I’ve learned some equally important lessons about what’s possible:
- That comprehensive services are critical to making a difference. Providing a hot meal or a sack of groceries may be the starting point, but providing laundry and shower facilities, a prepaid cellphone, a haircut and a dental check, job and legal guidance, are important ways of restoring a bit of dignity to those who have lost so much.
- That treating individuals with dignity makes a difference, providing options and decision-making opportunities in matters as small as choosing between white rice and brown, and that people rich or poor who are treated with dignity most often respond with dignity.
- That effective helping organizations operating on shoestring budgets deserve much more support than we – as individuals and a society – have seen fit to give.
- That lots of people want to help, and that they’re generally not the well-heeled museum and opera volunteers pictured on the society pages, but young people and retirees, school and religious groups, American borns and those from other countries. White kids from a rural Mississippi church mission working alongside folks from the neighborhood who may have limited means themselves but take responsibility for those with even less.
There can be no easy fix for narrowing the growing divide between rich and poor in America. Individuals helping individuals – as important to the receiver and as gratifying to the giver – is not going to solve the massive challenges of poverty, hunger, mental illness, homelessness and addiction that will require policy reform, political and moral courage, and increased public spending. Raising the minimum wage, investing in job and infrastructure creation, rebalancing the tax burden, and establishing medical and mental health care, quality education and job training as basic American rights rather than privileges will all be required to address the root causes of poverty and hunger.
Meanwhile though, spending a few hours each month helping people less fortunate than ourselves, wherever we are on the socio-economic spectrum, is the least we can do. To briefly step outside our lives of privilege and re-sensitize ourselves to those around us. To raise our averted eyes and confront the poverty and hunger in our midst, while we recharge our own humanity and fulfill our moral and civic obligations.
Do it, and tell your stories to friends, coworkers and family. And then translate your ground-level experiences into social and political advocacy. Because only through a combination of bottom-up and top-down action can we begin to live up to our responsibilities, and to America’s promise.
Postscript: For those who’ve asked how to find hands-on volunteer opportunities in New York, I encourage you to check out the New York Cares placement program.