In Defense of Street Feeding

The Corridor of Hope in Las Vegas, Nevada.

In a blighted part of the city, that most people avoid, is the Corridor of Hope. Although the name wasn’t meant to be satirical, when you see the worn tents and cardboard lean-tos littering the sidewalks and empty lots, it is impossible not to see irony in the name.

There, in the Corridor of Hope, are the titans of philanthropy. Sprawling campuses, where all hands are on deck to help the homeless, the poor, immigrants, and addicts as well as helping with adoptions, providing cooling stations when the weather hits triple digits, offering healthcare and operating soup kitchens.

Just a few blocks from downtown, this particular piece of Las Vegas Boulevard is an area that no tourist would dare to tread.  With the exception of government-owned properties, there are few functioning businesses. It’s quite literally a shanty-town.

There are hundreds of people sleeping outside the gates of the charitable compounds. There are not enough beds, there isn’t enough food, there is not enough manpower and there isn’t nearly enough funding to care for all of these people. They stay in the area hoping to get in for a meal but the ugly truth is that there will always be thousands of people beyond the reach of these magnanimous mammoths.

There are groups like Safe Nest that care for victims of domestic violence, there is a drug rehabilitation program at the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities has a homeless to home transitional program but despite all their efforts, there is still no room at the inn for many. This is especially true for males, who make up about 75% of the chronically homeless, nationwide.

Sadly, no amount of shelters will get everyone off the street. It is easy for people to say that the homeless chose to live on the street and to dismiss them completely.  We must remember that they are human beings and that they have reasons for fearing the help that they are offered.  There is a vulnerability in homelessness that I pray neither you nor I will ever completely understand. When someone needs to be on guard twenty-four hours a day, paranoia creeps in. If you don’t have a safe place to rest, you become sleep deprived. The meager belongings that you have become all that you have to lose. When you include insult, abuse and intimidation, from other homeless, the cops and passers-by, it isn’t hard to see why so many vagrants are distrusting of everyone around them. It’s a survival mechanism.

There are teenagers, too afraid of being returned to abusive households to fill out any of the necessary paperwork. There are undocumented immigrants afraid of being reported to ICE. There are women too afraid of being discovered by their abuser to go to a shelter. There are mothers too afraid of having their children taken away. There are people with warrants for trespassing or urban camping that would rather be exposed to the elements and hungry than in jail. None of these people will go to organizations and deal with the bureaucracy on campuses that are teeming with patrol cars.

Safety can be a serious concern in facilities for the homeless, as well. There is no amount of security that can keep an eye on hundreds of people in one room, every second. I cannot count on my fingers and toes how many people have told me that they will never return to a shelter because they were robbed or assaulted by other people staying there. Shelters nationwide have had issues with bed bugs, scabies and fleas which can make the struggle of homelessness even worse.  You cannot bring your pet and you likely cannot bring your stuff inside with you.

There are people within these organizations that think that “street feeding” (their words, not ours) which is volunteering directly with the homeless in your community, is part of the problem and that “street feeders” (their term, not ours) are the enemy. They believe that all acts of charity should be performed through designated 5013Cs and that a cash donation would go farther than a meal and a conversation. Believing that street feeders are the enemy to soup kitchens is like thinking that paramedics are the enemy of hospitals.

The kind of  attention only personal interaction offers.

The unfortunate truth is that street feeders can’t take a homeless person from poverty. In most cases, we can’t provide jobs or shelter and we certainly can’t provide healthcare, drug rehabilitation or psychological treatment. Our main goal is to help each person that we encounter to make it to tomorrow. Today they may be too hungry, too hopeless or too high to believe that a better life is possible but a decent meal, a bottle of water, cup of coffee, a warm coat or a fresh pair of socks and the attention of someone who isn’t avoiding eye contact with them, can make a big difference. We can help provide them with the endurance to make it to tomorrow. Tomorrow might be the day that they get a job, get into a shelter or a program. Tomorrow could be anything but only if they survive today.

Major organizations can’t leave their campuses and seek out the homeless. They can’t refer to the thousands of people they feed in a day by name and they certainly aren’t allowed to hug them.

Volunteering at these organizations is a wonderful thing. You can host food drives, you can stuff backpacks, you can do a lot. What you can’t do, in most cases, is interact directly with the people you want to help.

Who wouldn’t want a sandwich from these guys?

I want to see the people that I serve. I want to ask them what they need so that I can answer honestly when people ask me what food or goods they should consider donating. I want to look them in the eyes, so at least one person has acknowledged them that day. I want them to know that there are hundreds of people willing to give their time and talent to help each one of them. That is the difference between hosting a canned food drive for people that you will never see and putting food onto the plate of someone across a folding table.

I am eternally grateful for the amount of good work that organizations like Catholic Charities, the Salvation Army and the Rescue Mission do all over the world. They save lives, they help people survive homelessness and they provide transitional housing, empowering people to live normal, healthy lives.

Someday, I hope that everyone that I see in my line has the courage to go to these organizations and make meaningful changes in their lives. In the meantime, I will do my best to make sure that they don’t starve, that they stay warm, that they stay hydrated and that I ask them how they are.

Everyone should be helping those among us that need help. Both organizations and individuals serve our purposes and we both serve our communities. We should be able to do these things together.

“We cannot love God unless we love each other, and to love we must know each other. We know Him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet and life is a banquet, too, even with a crust, where there is companionship.”

Dorothy Day


2 thoughts on “In Defense of Street Feeding

  1. Such beautiful, kind, and selfless words. Every little bit helps. It doesn’t matter if it “fixes” the problem, as long as you’re making a difference for someONE.

    Liked by 1 person

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