If you’d like more, check out the previous entry in this series.
In the first afternoon of this experience, I was struck with a dilemma.
We were in a free store, welcome to ‘shop’ for the clothes that we would wear for the week. Four pants, four shirts, and four warm-weather pieces. Wanting to have a little fun, I scoured the racks for the most outlandish T’s and the ugliest sweaters. The free store is a ministry of a large homeless shelter, for both men and women. Residents of the shelter could shop during normal business hours during the week, but the store was open to the community on Saturday mornings.
As I hauled my wool treasures in a clear garbage bag back to our vehicle, I asked a natural question: “So when do we need to bring these clothes back?” “We don’t” was the answer. I immediately regretted going the ugly sweater route. It turned out that in the back of the store were mountains and mountains of clothes. Taking some of the clothes was actually helping the flow of inventory. This also meant that while they tried to put the kibosh on some of the “takers” purely on principal and civility, it wasn’t really a big deal if one person was trying to cheat the system…at least in terms of the free store and its merchandise.
You could argue that offering so many things for free kills personal drive and initiative. The goal, after all, would be for someone to be self sufficient. That’s not what we experience in so many receiver services funded by the government. Free stuff can easily lead to dependency. So is this free store helping or hurting?
Well let’s say that someone were working themselves out of their own poverty. A huge opportunity has come up: a job interview. But in preparing for the interview this person realizes they have no deodorant or lack the proper clothes and shoes. Or let’s say that a single mom in poverty must set aside time to apply for jobs because she first must scour the city to find a way to feed her children.
People need a base camp if we ever want them to climb the mountain.
Now we can argue what that entails: food, shelter, clothing, etc. And mind you the base camp shouldn’t be such a resort that people forget about the ultimate goal of climbing the mountain, but I don’t know where the line between dependency and initiative exists. Hell, I don’t even know if there is such a universal line for everyone. But here’s what I want to say: shame on us if someone is prevented from climbing out of poverty by the society we’ve created. We got to try to figure this out.