Sunday, March 23, 2014

Should we help those unwilling to help themselves?

A few years ago, a reader from California joined a local church's singles group. The group's leader planned for the members to help cook, serve and clean up after one Saturday evening meal per month at a local homeless shelter.

On their first visit, members of the group were told that because a cookout had been planned for the shelter residents and some graduates would be manning the grills, the singles weren't needed for cooking. Instead, he handed the 10 singles trash bags and disposable gloves, and asked if they'd help pick up litter from the fenced-in yard outside the shelter.

When they went outside, there were about 200 men sitting on chairs, picnic tables and blankets on the ground. Cigarette butts, cans, bottles and candy wrappers were strewn around the yard.

"Something in my mind just immediately said, 'no' in a loud voice," the reader says.

She told her leader she had to work at midnight, which was true, and that she had a headache, which was not true, and she went home.

"All the way home, I questioned myself, and I still do," she writes. She wonders why she was willing to cook, serve and clean up for the program, but not to pick up litter.

"If (the homeless at the shelter) have it together enough to manage to get themselves to this dining room at the appointed times for meals," she writes, "they could be expected to contribute some effort."

The reader works in a hospital emergency room, so she interacts regularly with the homeless. "I contribute clothing, have found meals when they are with us, and have helped soak feet and cut toenails." She also does lots of community service, but picking up litter, "I could not do."

She never went back to the homeless shelter.

"Am I way off the beam thinking that people who are there expecting to be fed could be expected to pitch in and do what they can?" she asks. "I guess I have a dose of that old saying, 'He who will not work shall not eat.'"

That 'saying' the reader cites is an admonition from Paul to the Thessalonians in the New Testament portion of the Bible. The Thessalonians, expecting the imminent return of Jesus, exhausted their own resources and then began mooching off of others. Not cool, Paul pointed out.

It's fair for the reader to expect that the residents of the homeless shelter would be asked to help clean up the yard. What's not clear, however, is that they refused to do so. Since the job for which the singles group originally volunteered was covered, the organizer may simply have been trying to find an alternative.

The reader had every right to choose whether or not to participate. Lying about a headache to get out of the task was not the right thing to do, however. It would have been the right thing to tell the organizer the truth: that she was comfortable cooking and serving a meal, but not cleaning up a yard while those who presumably littered it sat around. 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 



Anonymous said...

I would have left as well, but not before letting the homeless shelter "leader" know why I was leaving. Why? The "leader" is not leading - s/he is enabling. We cripple people when we do everything for them and do not expect them to do anything for themselves, or for society in general.

I'm a long-time, daily reader of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. I'll use an article I read in the AJC about Ann Price, the owner of a small diner who made the best hamburger in Atlanta. Ms. Price called her special 'burger the Ghetto Burger. Some food critics called it possibly the best hamburger in the USA. The Wall Street Journal did call it the best 'burger in the USA.

People lined up outside for Ms. Price's burgers! People who lived in the neighborhood, people who worked nearby, along with people who came from other neighborhoods in Atlanta and Georgia and other parts of the USA!

Often, she would have requests by people who said they were hungry and homeless, asking for a free hamburger. The neighborhood was such that they may have been hungry and/or homeless. What did Ms. Price do? She told them they could earn their lunch: sweep the parking lot, pick up trash outside, mop the floors, take out inside trash, etc. When they had done the work, she gave them the burger they earned. But they had to eat their burger in the diner. No taking the burger out and selling it for premium dollars.

Ms. Price had the gift of knowing how to cook....never went to a cooking school......many people share this gift.

Ms. Price also had the gift of common sense: if you're needy/hungry, work and earn your burger. Common sense is not that common any more.

Anonymous said...


The person who gave her time had every right how to spend it or not spend it. She felt used, as she would have been. And probably should have said why as a teaching tool but it is not required.

Just do not go back and let the others do what they desire.

Alan Owseichik
Greenfield, Ma

"Everyone is doing it" is no basis for doing it yourself

Years ago, after I had left my job as a magazine editor and took a significant cut in pay to become an assistant professor at a liberal ...