The Least Have the Answers

Back when I was pregnant with my oldest son, I wound up without a place to live. The counselor at the crisis pregnancy center which was helping me navigate this time reluctantly referred me to a homeless shelter/half-way house for single moms as a last resort. She didn’t come right out and say it, but my sense was that she was none too impressed with the way the program there was run.

And she was right. In the year and a half that I lived there, not one of the women who went through the program was able to move from the shelter into independent living. They were all either kicked out or ended up moving into another unstable setting to get away. When I asked the social worker who we met with regularly, she could only think of one former resident who had moved on to independent living after her time there. And that was because she had scored a section 8 voucher. Given that the stated goal of the program was to move single moms from homelessness to independent living, this was kind of a big deal.

A few months after I moved in, the leadership of the program announced that they were re-hauling the program and the house rules women had to abide by. They asked us to write down any suggestions we had for how to make the program more effective and our lives better. Me being me, I wrote a very long, thoughtful list of changes that I thought would help, complete with explanations.

Several months later, the board of the organization put out the new rules. Of all the suggestions I and other women in the program had made, just one was adopted; we would now be allowed to have Christmas trees. Not only were none of our suggestions adopted, but the new rules actually moved in the opposite direction of what we had said would be helpful to us.

After the new rules were implemented, women cycled in and out of the program faster than before. I was eventually kicked out for taking on a second job without discussing it with the social worker. My now-husband arranged for me and our son to sleep on a his friend’s pull-out sofa for a few months while I tried to find someplace safe that would rent someone under the age of 25 with bad credit. I had never met the woman before I showed up with my bags and kid.

The people who ran the program, when asked about their lack of success in reaching their stated goal, would sigh and say it just shows how hard it is to work with people who wind up in trouble. Frankly, if your program is unable to help a compliant, college educated young woman from an upper-middle class background, who doesn’t party, has worked continually since age 10 and has never been in trouble with the law to get on her feet, it’s safe to say that your program doesn’t work.

The reason I’m sharing this story is to illustrate why it is we as a society cannot solve the problems we face. The problem with this program was the same problem that nearly all programs meant to help those in need have. It was designed and run by successful people according to their experiences and assumptions about how the world works. And that’s why that program didn’t work and why most government social programs don’t work and even why so many schools don’t work.

We have this tendency to think that if we want something fixed, we should listen to people who are successful. It makes a certain sense. If you’ve succeeded, then you know how to succeed and can share the answers with others who would like to succeed.

However, before I became a homeless, single mom or got involved with the man from a bad family who is now my husband, I came from a family of 2%ers. My dad and his three siblings all have masters degrees. His dad was trained at Harvard by the Army during WWII and went on to be president of a company. Two of my mom’s siblings are multi-millionaires. So, I was born, bred and raised among successful people.

I’ve seen people at both the top and at the bottom, up close and personal. And I have a secret for you; if you want answers for how to help people who are struggling and failing, don’t ask successful people. Ask the people who are struggling and failing.

The answers which successful people have for how to overcome adversity are the same answers that everyone has. They don’t have anything unique to offer in that respect. They also don’t have any real understanding of the problems people face.

In fact, I can say from experience, when you are successful it’s hard to grasp that there really are problems. It’s hard to understand why what made you successful won’t work for everyone else. From the vantage point of the sort of person who makes rules, starts programs and runs things, the problem must be with the people – they just aren’t willing to do it right.

People on the bottom have answers that people on the top don’t. They know why people aren’t doing it right. They know what the obstacles to doing it right are. They know the obstacles people face even when they are doing it right. They know what people need in order to overcome those obstacles. In fact, if you look at the few social programs which are working, nearly all of them are run by people from the bottom.

Of course, we humans aren’t in the habit of listening to people at the bottom. They are losers, failures, suspect. What do they know about how to suceed? If they were so smart, they wouldn’t be in a position of needing help, right?

The governing board of the shelter I was at didn’t listen to any of the opinions of the women living there in good part because they didn’t trust us. They were like multi-millionaire lawmakers who are reluctant to build a safety net, lest people lose the drive to support themselves. They thought our goal was to avoid being responsible and disciplined and saw it as their job to force responsibility and discipline on us. They couldn’t imagine that we might understand our problems better than they did. They were sucessful people with families and homes. We had failed at life before we had even started. Clearly, they knew better than we did.

This is a common problem; even when people at the bottom can make their concerns and ideas heard, we don’t trust them enough to listen. We look for any excuse to ignore, discount and disagree. We refuse to consider that perhaps the people at the bottom are able to see things that people at the top don’t. We refuse to believe that the world is so hostile or the odds so stacked. And frankly, we often refuse to listen to people at the bottom because the problems they point to seem too large and intractible to be solved.

The thing is that while successful people rarely understand what the problems are, successful people often have skill sets, networks and experience that people at the bottom don’t have. And those things can be incredibly valuable. Someone at the bottom often knows just what needs to be done to help people, but lacks the skills, networks and experience to make that happen. So it’s not that successful people don’t have anything to offer.

We all know that Jesus said that his followers were to serve those in need and to consider the last to be first and the first to be last. Usually, we see this as a call to alleviate suffering, show compassion and grow in love. Which is certainly true. But I also think that these teachings are a bit of a trail of crumbs he left for us as well. That he knew the answers to the problems we face would be found among the least and not the greatest. Besides, Jesus said that what we do for the least of these, we are also doing for him. Might Jesus who says if we love him, we will listen to his words, also expect us to listen to, learn from and take seriously what the least have to say? It is very much how his upside down Kingdom works, no?

7 thoughts on “The Least Have the Answers

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts in this post and agree. I see similar in the church setting also – marginalized people who try to share suggestions with church leadership are ignored or seen as complainers. Instead of realizing that the marginalized may see things from a unique perspective and have valuable input.

  2. You might have a valid point… But… You didn’t really give any evidence or examples to back up your claim… Only specific suggestion that you mentioned was allowing Christmas trees… Seriously?
    I read your whole article waiting for you to provide examples of the things that the “people at the bottom” know/experience and how that knowledge might be used to implement different policies/programs….
    You also failed to provide any specific examples of the mistakes(or overlooked factors) that the organizers/successful people/people at the top make which could/should be changed….
    You really might have a good point… But seriously disappointing article with 0 examples or supporting evidence….

    1. Well, it’s a blog post, not a policy paper. I’m really just trying to introduce the idea in an engaging way. As far as specifics, I mentioned the Christmas tree simply to illustrate how totally our suggestions were ignored. It’s been 18 years, so I don’t remember all the details, but as an example of a change I suggested, when you first moved in, they basically had a curfew of 8pm and could not have any visitors during the week for the two weeks after you moved in. The idea was the the crowd you were running with was a source of corruption and that you probably had a tendency to spend your evenings partying, so they wanted to cut you off from that. They also wanted you to spend your time getting to know your roommate. I pointed out that isolating a mother who was in crisis from the important relationships in her life was unhealthy and creating problems with depression and burnout. It also made it very difficult for your child to spend any time with his or her father if he didn’t have a stable, safe place to take him or her. Unless the father is dangerous, I think that anything which interferes with his relationship with his child is immoral. I suggested allowing a certain number of hours per week to have no more than two visitors at a time and a curfew of 9. Instead, they extended the probationary period to a full month, moved the curfew to 6:30, extended the ban on visitors to weekends and banned phones in your apartment.

      Other examples off the top of my head are that if you ask homeless people what they need, they will say they just need a place to live. Recently some places have been experimenting with giving people a place to live without all the usual restrictions like being sober, getting training, etc. What they’ve discovered is that people are more willing to move into this sort of housing and after a relatively short time, they start getting sober, seeking training, etc. It turns out that having a stable place to live is the basis for making other changes which are necessary to overcome homelessness.

      When I did prison ministry, one of the biggest worries of the boys we worked with was how to stay clean when they got out and went back home. These kids were products of their environments and when they were released, they were sent right back into those environments. A few times we had a kid violate parole or commit a petty crime on the day he was released because he wanted to be sent back to jail. He knew he had a better chance of staying out of trouble in jail than back in his old environment. If we provided half-way houses or even quality foster care to kids coming out of juvi, they would have a much lower recidivism rates and better long term chances of sucess.

      Or think of the early 90s when rappers were being condemned for songs like Cop Killer and no one would take the problem of police brutality seriously. Just today, 18 indictments were handed down for civil rights violations by deputies in the LA Country jail for violence against prisoners, false arrest and other problems that people have been complaining about for decades. Police doing outrageous things like conducting vaginal and anal searches on the side of the road during traffic stops are in the news on a nearly daily basis. We should have listened to those rappers two decades ago and dealt with the problems then.

      I’m sure I could think of more, but I have potatoes boiling that need attention and 5 hungry kids. But my point is really that we need to do a better job of listening to people at the bottom rather than trying to impose “solutions” in a top-down manner.

  3. Agh. Yes, yes, and yes. Granted, I’m one of the people who can’t see all the problems because I’ve never been there myself, but talking with friends who have been through/are going through things like this it’s so infuriating to see how ineffective some programs can be, and how cold they are toward everyone. And the lines and wait lists. And the inflexibility. Just…*shakes fist in air* There are a few places that get it right, though. Every now and then I’ll find a charity or an organization that doesn’t suck and actually? Those are usually run by people who were once on the street themselves.

  4. Rebecca. I just read your primary post above and want to summarize the feelings and beliefs of many Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelical Christians in East Tennessee as recently expressed in various media venues, including letters to the editor printed in local metropolitan newspapers. When you consider it all together, it goes something like this:

    The Bible says that the wages of sin are death. It is our sincere belief that the people who accumulate in homeless shelters and other such situations do so as a direct result of their own “sin life.” With regard to this, the principal problem is that we have an American society that went “soft on sin” in the 1960s, and the Godless Democrats were responsible for all of it. As a result, we now have a layer of charity organizations and government entitlement programs that intervene by creating a soft mattress to cushion and protect this slime from the wages of their sins. These are rowdy and undisciplined low-lifes who are so caught up in their own sin and so protected from its wages that they cannot see any direction to go accept to commit their next round of sins. We believe that people like this are incapable of finding their way out of sin on their own. Therefore, successful people and successful people only must intervene to point the way out. We have discovered that most of these street people are incapable of following the pointed fingers that are provided to them. This is because they love their sins too much, cling to them too tightly, and take advantage of programs that undercut the God-intended pain and suffering that comes from sin. This is why most attempts to help these people have been unsuccessful.

    Many in the “true” Christian community of East Tennessee are considering and formulating a new approach for dealing with these people—an approach that we believe will work and save hardworking local taxpayers a great deal of money. The wages of sin are death. The Bible says so. God intended for people to experience the pain from their sins so they would see the light and sin no more. We believe that God is tough on sin, and that we should be of like mind to solve these social problems. The first step is to is to remove government entitlement programs that protect the sinners from the pains of their sin and give them a soft landing. We firmly believe that maximum pain and suffering is the only way out of sin that will work for these people and that all attempts to help these people should embody that philosophy.

    Here is how it would work:

    1) Many homeless people are drug addicts and the mentally ill. In the ‘true” Christian community, we have long known that mental illness is not a sickness. It is solely a person’s refusal to come to grips with their own sin life and do something about it. We propose to withdraw sin-softening help to these people and turn them out into the streets without food, water, and shelter like God intended. Once again, the wages of sin are death. When they hit that street and feel that empty belly clawing at them, the dry throat of thirst choking them, and temperatures well below freezing on their mostly bare skin, the pain and agony that God intended them to suffer as a result of their sin will become so acute that they will have a simple choice that even they can make—abandon their sin or die like a dog in the street. A number of them may die in the gutter as a result. We are okay with that because: (1) that is the payment God has appointed for their sin; (2) it will be a sign to the others that no help is coming; (3) seeing the dead bodies on the pavement will frighten the remainder out of their sin lives. We in the Christian community earnestly believe that the spectre of certain death will be so frightening to most of these low-lifes that they will immediately straighten up, abandon their sin lives entirely, fly right, and become productive citizens, thus protecting the wallets of decent, hardworking, upstanding Christian people in the community.

    2) The other major arm of the plan would to take government entitlement money and turn all of it over to our churches. Government has long usurped the charity role of the churches, and this would place charity back solely in the hands of God’s people. Here would be the key difference that would maintain the pain factor in item No. 1 (above) and give these low-lifes a chance to abandon their sin. Unlike government entitlement programs, the churches would have the authority to use charity money as the dangling carrot on a stick to force people into nonsinful lives. The key operative principle would be to have the power to offer and withdraw charity only in “deserving” behavioral situations. The definition of “deserving” is key and would be set by local churches and be administered on a case-by-case basis by good Christians with a hard-on-sin attitude. Let’s look at an example involving pregnant women out of wedlock.

    The church would make a judgment as to who would be “deserving” of help and who would not. A pregnant girl with intelligence and promise who had been kicked out of a fine upper middle class or upper class family would be a good pick, whereas a girl raised in poverty and sin on the other side of the tracks would not be a good choice. Many minority women would be exempted automatically as the hopeless cases that they are. If a selected pregnant woman out of wedlock came in, the church would start immediately on convincing her to abandon her sin life, accept Jesus, and get sexually straightened up. Food, water, and shelter would be provided—but only temporarily and only so long as clear and documented progress on “putting away” the sin life was being made. At the first sign of any new sin, especially the sexual sin, all help would be withdrawn. However, this would only be done after she had given birth to her child, who would be put up for adoption by a fine Christian couple with a BMW in their garage. Immediately after the birth experience, the mother would be kicked back out into the street to suffer the wages of her sin in all of its pain and agony in hopes that the suffering God intended to happen would drive her back into a contrite and pure life before the Lord.

    Finally, “true” East Tennessee Christians believe that help for the down and out should be anchored firmly in basic Biblical principles like those set forth above. Above all else, we have to go back into the rules and regulations of the Old Testament to establish a clean and moral Tennessee society where decent people can feel safe to move about and feel that their private property assets are protected from plunder by the Godless. If you believe in this too Rebecca, be sure to attend church on Sunday and vote for a God-selected Republican candidate in 2014.

    (P.S. Rebecca. I do not personally believe in any of this crap that I have written above. However, here in East Tennessee where I live, you could close your eyes, throw an orange randomly into a crowd, and be fairly sure of hitting someone who earnestly believes in some variant of this crap. All of them will tell you that Jesus loves you.)

  5. Put another way:

    My daughter is a fine, upstanding Christian girl who goes to our conservative, Bible-believing church every Sunday. We were down at the shopping mall just the other day, and I saw the most wonderful pair of Prada shoes. My daughter would have looked so good in those shoes. Unfortunately, money is tight this month as it is almost every month in our family, and we had to pass by and go on down to Shoe Shoe for a less expensive pair of shoes. If we could only do something about all of these worthless government entitlement programs that take so much money out of Fred’s paycheck, we would finally have enough money to put our daughter in those Prada shoes.

    Lesson: My tax dollars are being wasted on sinners with intractable sin problems—just flushing a big part of my weekly paycheck down a toilet that is really a bottomless pit. If I could get them to quit taking that money out of my paychecks, I could finally have me some kind of life in this world. Well, that’s what my Republican Congressman tells me, and he’s a God-fearing man just like me.

Leave a Reply