One hallmark of the Christmas season is the number of campaigns that get underway to feed the hungry and help the homeless. I can’t imagine how horrible it must be to live without a home, or to have too little money to buy food. I am privileged to live close to a food bank, so I trust that my neighbours have enough food, though realistically many who struggle with food insecurity probably avoid accessing food banks because of the stigma involved. Homelessness has its own stigmas as well, and for that we only have our own societal norms to blame. Perhaps it is time to start looking at homelessness and hunger in entirely different ways. Maybe it needs to be everyone’s problem.
It has been over 18 months since Kerry-Lynne Wilson wrote a despicable article in the Ottawa Citizen in which she argues that downtown Ottawa will simply not be attractive to tourists until the homeless are cleaned up. Describing herself as the “ideal” Ottawa resident, she shared complaints about being accosted by the “mentally ill,” judged the clothing choices of the homeless people she encountered, and even smugly described leaving a young boy shivering in a bush since a few dollars would not have made a difference. It can really hurt a person’s sense of faith in the human race to know that people like Kerry-Lynne not only hold the views that they do, but rise to positions where they have the ability to share their views with millions of people. I can think of a few politicians who have similar attitudes, holding themselves on pedestals and giving themselves raises while legislating their constituents into poverty. One can only hope that 18 months worth of dissenting opinions have helped Kerry-Lynne see the error of her attitudes toward those in need.
One important way that we can all contribute to helping those who need it is by making small gestures year round. Things such as “care package” campaigns are important in the sense that they give those in need something to look forward to, and remind them that the “spirit of giving”, which is the hallmark of the holiday season, also applies to them. The problem is what happens after the holiday season, a month or two later when the items from the care packages have been used up, and everyone has returned to the daily grind, and many won’t give the homeless and the hungry a second thought until the next Christmas season. To the less fortunate, this period probably makes it feel as though even the kind-hearted people of the world have been infected with the spirit of giving up.
I believe that those of us who have the means to be able to give have the obligation to do so. Many may not agree, as is their right. When I say “obligation”, I simply mean giving something, anything, but not any kind of amount that would make us financially uncomfortable. My favourite way to donate is when I am asked by a cashier in a store. These donations usually benefit local people in need, and they are in small increments. In many cases, the ask is for a flat rate of $2 to a local food bank. Frankly, if I am in the checkout line at the LCBO with $50 worth of merchandise, it is hard to find an excuse not to donate that $2 to someone who doesn’t have food or shelter.
For five consecutive years in my younger days, I canvassed door-to-door for the Canadian Cancer Society. The Cancer Society was always one of the few organizations that did canvassing. When was the last time you remember a food bank representative knocking on your door? Truth is, my firsthand experience as a canvasser taught me that many people actually wait for that opportunity to give at the door each year. They would budget for one donation every year, and refuse all other requests for donations, citing the fact that they were waiting for the yearly canvassing. For places such as food banks and homeless shelters, it may therefore be necessary for them to partner with local stores to solicit donations, as annoying as it can sometimes be.
My grandfather once told me that he does not like to donate when asked in a store, because he has noticed on his receipts in the past that sales tax has been charged, and it is not clear where that extra money is going. That is a valid reason to be hesitant about donating in stores, but it is still important to find other ways to donate when a certain method makes you uncomfortable.
Unfortunately for many charitable organizations, funds are simply not available for advertising and campaigning. My workplace currently has food lining one of the hallways, which is an obvious indicator of a food drive, though I don’t remember hearing about it before seeing the food donations start to pile up. Even certain aspects of smart donating can be hard for food banks and other charities to communicate to large numbers of people. For example, years ago I was told that food banks prefer monetary donations to donations of actual food. This is because they can stretch a dollar further than the average consumer, meaning your donation of money ends up being “bigger” than an equivalent donation of food. Another thing to keep in mind is that certain food items are in demand at certain times, and often that information is not well advertised – big-hearted people must go searching for it.
In any case, giving to worthy causes and helping those in need is something that can be quite easy, and often make only a small dent in the finances of an average household. We live in a very generous community, and we take care of our own. Like all positive initiatives, it can never hurt to do more. For starters, let’s make sure that we don’t give up on those is need when Christmas has come and gone. Cheers to a spirit of giving that lasts 365 days a year!