Awhile back, I was asked to speak to a group of college students about the work of Project HOME and the crisis of homelessness. Joining with me in the talk, to share his personal testimony, was one of our alumni, who after years living at one of our residences, is now on his own, working and contributing. After the talk I drove him back to his home. In the flow of our conversation he talked about how now that he was working a legitimate job, he was making more money than he ever had, and certainly more than he needed. In the spirit of “giving back,” he shared that he recently helped one of our current residents by paying his monthly rent for him, because that resident was going through tough times but didn’t want to lose his housing.A couple of weeks earlier, one of our former residents stopped by my office, as he does on occasion. We have known him since our earliest days, and he had been through the ringer many times. Even now his housing was tenuous, and he was living with a fatal disease. On this visit, he was laden with several large shopping bags. He had come into some money, and went on a shopping splurge at our thrift store, Our Daily Threads. He took his various purchases out of the bags to show me, with evident pride at his fabulous bargains. “Guess what this pair of pants would cost you in the store? Forty bucks. I got it for two bucks. And look – it’s as good as new.” But none of it – the pairs of pants, sweaters, jackets, all, as he insisted, in great shape – was for him. He had bought it all for the guys who lived in the residence with him. All like him on severely limited incomes, possibly on the brink of returning to the streets. “I don’t need much myself, and I got plenty. But the guys will appreciate these.”
I also think of another long-time member of our community, who came into our first shelters 20 years ago. He too is living on his own now, but poor health and years on the streets have taken their toll. Not even fifty, he walks haltingly with a cane. Practically as long as I have known him, he has taken a portion of his meager disability check to sponsor a poor child in a developing country. At one point, he had relapsed and was back on the streets, but when he restabilized, he immediately restarted the sponsorship. He usually carries a photo of his child with him and is glad to talk about him.
At Project HOME our work, like that of many nonprofit organizations, is enabled in large part by what is traditionally called “charity.” We use the word to describe the act of voluntarily making a gift of a portion of our assets to support a cause or to help persons in need. And we are exceedingly grateful for and amazed by the generosity of the thousands of charitable donors, whose gifts, small and large, come to us each day.
My experience of being part of Project HOME for many years has given me cause to reflect on this business of charity and generosity. One paradigm of charity presumes it is those persons with means who share with “the less fortunate.” But I have been challenged as I have witnessed remarkable generosity by our residents, those who have known utter destitution or who live on extremely modest means. I see them sharing their resources, however slim, with an astonishing ease, without counting or calculation, without ego or need for accolade. They have “been there.” And they know others are still there.For some persons, certainly, the struggle for survival can create a hardness, a close-to-the-bone instinct of grasping and hoarding. But for others, that same struggle seems to have birthed a very different response, a radical freedom that includes an amazing spirit of generosity.
Perhaps we need a larger vision of charity and generosity. I am coming to believe they mean more than the discrete acts of gifts or donations. What I have learned from our residents is a kind of generosity that is a fundamental orientation of our lives toward empathy and solidarity. It embraces the truth of our own struggles and connects it to the struggles of sisters and brothers. The sharing of resources is a free and natural instinct, one expression of this deep empathy. And this empathy, I am convinced, makes us more truly human.