Centuries of questions about homelessness

Let’s talk about a 12th century rabbi.

I write about homelessness. So I often get asked questions like, “Yesterday I saw a homeless person. What should I have done? Would a dollar have solved the problem? What would the dollar have been spent on? Where do homeless people come from? Why don’t they go live with their parents?”

I have actually been asked, “Why don’t they just buy a house?”

Or, “Why don’t homeless people get jobs so they can buy better clothes?”

I respond by saying that they can’t get jobs dressed as they are. “Well then why don’t they put on nice clothes? They’ll feel better and then they’ll get a job,” is the reply.

People have been asking these kinds of questions all through history and you can read various answers to such questions in books written ages ago. One such book was written by Maimonides, the certain 12th century rabbi I alluded to above. 

Maimonides made a list of ways to give to poor people.

Now, I’m not as old as you all think. I was not around in the 12th century, so I never met this Maimonides fellow, but I’ve heard about him and read his list. Where he was coming from is that, in his time and place, giving to the poor wasn’t a choice, but an obligation. The way people would put the question to him wasn’t, “Should I give to poor people?” but rather, “How should I give to poor people in order to fulfill my obligation?”

So he made a little list. It states eight ways to adequately fulfill your obligation to give to a poor person. It was arranged from No. 1, the best way, to No. 8, the least best way.

No. 1 answers the question about the homeless person who is dressed in rags. Instead of stating, “Tell them to get a job” or saying, “Tell them to wear better clothes,” Maimonides says the best thing to do is offer them work and pay them enough to be independent, to offer to partner with them in business, or to give them what they need to get a job. Like good clothes for starters.

You’ve heard the saying, “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime.” That works, provided you also give him a fishing pole or a net so he can start fishing. You don’t just snatch the equipment away having taught them how to fish, so that someone else has to teach them where they might acquire fishing gear without any money. This stuff is just common sense.

Skipping down the list all the way to No. 8, Maimonides says the least best way to give is begrudgingly. But, it’s better than nothing.

Recently, I’ve decided it’s time to update the list in light of modern practices. 

No. 9: Worse than giving begrudgingly is to take from the poor with the idea it’s for their own good. So, if a person has a tent to live in, you should not take the tent away on the grounds that you don’t think anyone should live in a tent.

No. 10: Worse than No. 9 is to take a poor person’s freedom away while thinking they would be better off as a slave or as a prisoner than poor. That’s not your judgment to make.

At the other end of the scale I have thought of a way you can give to the poor that rivals Maimonides’ No. 1 way. I don’t know what number to assign this, but I think it’s worth putting out here: Giving is not just an obligation; it’s a privilege and a joy to be able to give. Therefore, one of the greatest gifts you can give to poor people is the gift of letting them give. Find ways that they can give. Let them enjoy the privilege, too.

Courtesy of Real Change / INSP.ngo

Top