The moral questions on homelessness

*Note: This essay was published in the Colorado Springs Gazette print edition on April 29, 2019. It can also be found online here, an image of the column is included below, as well as the text of the essay.

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I was running. Dawn was still rising, and I was headed east toward downtown Colorado Springs on the Midland Trail adjacent to Highway 24. The day before Easter, it was a Saturday and so I was out for longer than usual. I was overdressed, and had been wearing a heavy hat that I took off and now carried in my hand, which exposed the red headphones that piped a podcast into my ears. In the distance, straight ahead, I could see two men, one nearer and he started to come into focus as I approached, and another man off in the distance, still too fuzzy to see with any clarity.

I closed in on the nearer man, who appeared to be homeless, and he was shouting and waved his arms at me. It took me a second to realize he was trying to break through my earbud-induced deafness, and so I pulled them out to listen.

He said, hurriedly, and pointing at the other man down the road, “Watch out. Don’t go near that guy. He’s not OK, he’s unstable, and he might do something.”

My mind immediately raced ahead of my legs, thinking of all the bad things that might happen if I ran too close to the man ahead. So, to prevent all that might come from a confrontation, I turned left at the next opportunity and ran elsewhere.

Most of the time we can’t simply turn away from homelessness in the Pikes Peak region. It’s all around us. It’s the elephant in our condo—we might avoid it for a while, but no matter where we roam we know we’ll regularly encounter this pachyderm-sized problem.

What’s a moral citizen to do? How should we think about the moral side of the issue?

First, as the medical expression goes, do no harm. The National Alliance on Mental Illness has conducted surveys that’ve found that nearly half of homeless adults in shelters have either severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders (logically, one would expect the percentage to be higher for those living outside of shelters). So to give money directly, in these cases, may actually exacerbate a person’s problems. If you feel compelled to give, give mindfully and in a way that ensures you aren’t contributing to greater harm by using trusted, experienced agents through which to donate. Our family gives through our church, which has a track record of helping those in need with clothes and community meals. The city’s Help COS initiative (https://coloradosprings.gov/helpcos) is a great start to moral giving that keeps your help from becoming a hurt.

Second, show respect. There is no reason to deny someone the dignity they deserve just because life’s circumstances have led them to be without a roof over their head. A local newspaper editor in Old Colorado City (which has since gone out of print) made it a habit of referring to homeless individuals as “bums,” which is clearly demeaning and derogatory and beneath the manner in which a civilized person should act. These are people, just like us. Look them in the eye, see them, greet them, they exist. Treat them well.

Because, third, the Golden Rule always applies. There’s a reason that every spiritual tradition that’s ever existed has adopted some form of “do unto others as you would have done to you.” None of us are self-made, and you never know when you’ll need someone’s help. Emergency knows no status in society. A homeless person might very well be the street Samaritan that lends a hand when you need it most.

Or, they just might be the one who guides you to steer clear of potential danger.

Ever since that interaction, which took place in the space of a single stride, I’ve wondered who that man was. He seemed to really care about my safety. Where is he? A shelter?

But I’ve also thought about the other man, the one I avoided without thinking, and whether I should have instead stayed my course and tried to help him in some small way. I just don’t know.

What I do know is that when it comes to homelessness in the Pikes Peak region, the moral questions will continue. But we can at least agree on some moral principles to guide our actions.

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