Helping the Homeless Should Be about the Homeless

It’s that time of year when we are in the spirit of giving.  It’s a time of materialism, but also a time when many of us search for ways to make a difference and give to those in need.  As a parent and as a principal, I love the idea of finding ways for kids to be involved in giving.  A colleague of mine made advent calendars for her kids where each window reveals an action they can take to contribute to the holiday season (such as a donation to the local food bank, etc.)

Unfortunately, at times our desire to give becomes more about us than the recipient.  Assuming we know how to help creates a power imbalance in itself.  I can’t think of anywhere that this is more apparent than the streets of the DTES at Christmas time.

Hundreds of good hearted groups head to the streets assuming they know how to help.  Most groups visit in the two weeks leading up to Christmas handing out what they assume to be essentials:  lunches, coffee, hot chocolate, toiletries, blankets, coats, shoes, socks, gloves and toques.  School groups or church groups arrive in clusters and mob the sidewalks with give aways.  Proud parents capture these moments through photograph and video.  Kids run freely up and down Hastings handing out their packages to those in need.

And yet something is terribly wrong.  If you stood at the corner of Main and Hastings for an hour on a December Sunday, you would see dozens of groups ‘help’ the homeless each hour.  As one group pulls away, the other tour bus arrives.  The homeless look like boxing day shoppers with their arms full of food, clothing, blankets and holiday goodies.  Well intentioned groups drive away with pride knowing they have ‘helped the homeless’.  The pictures of their group visiting the streets capture their meaningful contributions.  They are oblivious to the help that happened ten minutes before their good act or ten minutes after.

Don’t get me wrong – I am not against helping the homeless – in fact I am passionate about it.  Part of helping comes from understanding the people and their community first.

If you would like to help the homeless this Christmas please consider these suggestions:

It is cold, rainy and dark in Vancouver in November, January and February just as much as December yet the handouts are scarce in these months.  Perhaps your Christmas contribution is a promise to visit in these months.

If you feel compelled to help in Vancouver, perhaps start by asking the community what they would like to have.  Common answers include water (no more caffeine – they are already dehydrated), bananas, towels, or protein filled foods such as meat, protein bars, etc.

If you decide to visit the DTES, please remember YOU are the guest in someone else’s community.  Please don’t crowd the sidewalks, don’t set up video cameras and don’t take pictures without asking for permission first.  Be genuine, be human and remember, helping the homeless should be about helping those in need – not about us.

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