The Parable of the Starfish
We’ve all heard the parable of the starfish: a man comes across a young boy throwing starfish into the ocean. The man, seeing this, tells the boy that what he’s doing is a waste of time because, there being thousands of starfish, his actions won’t make a difference. And then comes the boy’s famous response. Picking up a starfish, he says, “It makes a difference to this one!”
I got to thinking about the starfish story as I was driving home from work today and passed a homeless man panhandling on the side of the road. It’s a frigid day—windy and cold, with a chance of rain and sleet in the afternoon. In short, a day that must make the despair of homelessness even more biting and sharp. Stopped at a red light, I looked at the man, bundled up yet shivering, holding up his makeshift sign, and wondered what I should do. Give him a dollar? Ignore him? Work for systemic change that will end homelessness?
The light turned green and I continued on my way. But I couldn’t get those questions out of my head. I am, after all, the Executive Director of a nonprofit whose mission is to end poverty. In a sense it is my job to wrestle with these issues. That said, I think we’ve all heard the various responses to what I call the Paradox of the Panhandler:
- · If you give him (or her) money, he’ll waste it
- · You shouldn’t give him money; buy him food instead
- · He should get a job
- · Panhandling—now there’s a way to make money without working!
- · It won’t make a difference
- · I’m too busy
- · This won’t solve the problem
From the point-of-view of the homeless man the most important course of action is that you help him. The obvious counterpoint to this is that each of us can only give so much, can only spare so much change, can only stop so many times during the day to help another in need. And if we take the attitude that it is better to work for systemic change, well, that isn’t exactly a picnic, now is it?
None of this is revolutionary; it seems to me we are all vaguely aware of these thoughts when facing the problem of homelessness, and perhaps that is why we prefer to look away. Yet the outreached hand of a person in need imposes on us a stark question: what are we going to do today for this human being?
Unfortunately, what tends to happen is that some people, moved by any of the mysterious impulses that motivate human beings, give the man some change; and most others do nothing at all. Neither scenario gets to the root of the problem, which is multi-varied and ranges from a weak social safety net to a poor mental health system and lack of affordable housing and jobs.
If we are to solve the Paradox of the Panhandler, it seems, we must not only confront the immediacy of the homeless person asking us for help; no, we must also address the very system that makes it possible for human beings to have to sleep on the streets or in dingy shelters, devoid of dignity, of safety, of hope. A tall order, to be sure, but as Martin Luther King wrote, “An injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We can only ignore the suffering of others for so long. Eventually, that suffering will make itself known, will impinge upon the comfort we enjoy. And though we may not have the solutions to endemic injustice, surely we have within us the ability to contemplate them, to advocate for whatever can be done, and to take what action we can.
Finally, the good news is that we now have some promising approaches to ending homelessness. For instance, a recent NY Times article ‘How to Help Homeless Families,’ noted that
“Cities are moving away from long-term shelter and focusing, instead, on developing better ways to identify and prioritize vulnerable individuals and families, prevent crisis, and rapidly re-house people, using short-or-long-term assistance as needed. ...The evidence is mounting that this works.”
Cities, though, aren’t robots. They are run by politicians voted into office by the voting public. If we know how to at least try to end homelessness, and we elect the people with the power to implement those policies, it stands to reason that, at a minimum, we can push our elected officials to implement those policies. What’s more, we must be willing to sacrifice something to make the policies tenable, be it paying slightly higher taxes, approving ballot measures to authorize the construction of more affordable housing, or voting out of office politicians who fail to live up to their promises.