When helping helps

Wars, disease, famine, and oppression are having devastating impacts on untold numbers of people around the world. In the “wealthy countries” we are seeing an alarming rise in the number of people who find themselves homeless. For decades homelessness was considered largely a big city “problem”, but no longer. You will find people living “rough” in cities, towns, and lately even in rural areas. Of course, it’s a very, very complex issue, and there are many reasons why people end up finding themselves homeless, by why are the numbers growing so dramatically?

Drug addiction is one issue – the huge spike in opioid addiction alone has ruined the lives of countless thousands of people, for which the main opioid-producing pharmaceutical company is finally being sued. Talk about too little, too late for all those families affected.

Mental health challenges in their very different manifestations is another issue. Too many people in need of mental health care are living on the streets, or in some places in prisons, for lack of sufficient support for mental health.

Escaping an abusive homelife and not having any resources to make a new life for yourself is another issue. Or, in some places these days, with deflated wages and inadequate supplies of affordable housing, people can be working and still find themselves homeless. And we can’t forget the very sad reality that sometimes everything just goes wrong for someone all at the same time; lose your job, lose your home, lose your credit, lose your car, suddenly you’re confronted with the unimaginable. “There but for the grace of God go I” comes to mind.

These challenges require different interventions; one solution most certainly does not fit everyone. And nobody has all the answers. But giving people who find themselves living in a tent city – especially in the dead of a Canadian winter – a chance to find their way to a better “place” – on their own terms, to the best of their ability, with personal dignity and personal safety – is surely what we should be striving for.  Surely we want to live in and support communities that aim to provide that opportunity for all of its citizens.

A tent camp in Fredericton last year (2022) before it was taken down for safety reasons. The shelters fill up, and some people aren’t comfortable being around lots of people in the shelters. Temperatures were in the -20C range.

In our town, there are many support programs and outreach work underway, including shelters, but still the tent camps keep springing up. It’s a long, slow process to get it right for everyone.

One person who has introduced a new approach in our town is local IT entrepreneur and social activist Marcel Lebrun. I’ve written a bit about his project and vision previously, most recently in my Who’s Your Hero? post. Marcel has worked closely with the Indigenous community as a strong ally, leading projects that hopefully will help other non-Indigenous people understand the Indigenous culture and history – and issues –  better. Most recently, he’s started his visionary 12 Neighbours Community, which is a multifaceted project providing housing (tiny homes) for people currently homeless, and at the same time empowering those new residents to take ownership of their new community and, for those who are interested and able, to learn employable skills. There is a workshop on site where new tiny homes continue to be built and added to this community, and aside from being part of the solution for providing homes for the homeless, these new residents obtain skills-training and experience that can be used to help fill our shortage of tradespeople.

A streetscape at the 12 Neighbours Community, when it started last summer and then this winter. The project was named for the original 12 tiny homes; the number has since grown to 44 and is growing.

Recently Marcel posted an article on the 12 Neighbours Community Facebook page that articulates the philosophy underlying this project so well that I thought it needed to be shared. It’s a message we might not all want to hear at first blush, but I think once you absorb it you will see the difference he’s speaking about. See what you think.

When Helping Helps, by Marcel Lebrun

As the famous Chinese proverb states, “Give a man a fish, and you feed hm for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” This sentiment encapsulates the fundamental difference between helping that hurts and helping that truly helps. Many well-intended actions can, at times, cause more harm than good, inadvertently undermining the development of an individual’s capacity. In contrast, “when helping helps” focuses on fostering independence and growth by working alongside others to build strengths and capabilities.

Emergency relief, or traditional charity, is appropriate in acute situations; however, extending its application to chronic circumstances is inadvertently harmful. A chronic situation calls for long term development, not relief.

Additionally, it’s essential to recognize that a relationship that truly helps should not be based on a provider-recipient dynamic, but on mutuality. As Indigenous activist and artist Lila Watson said, “ If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”

One evidence-based approach that aligns with this notion is Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD). By cultivating the positive assets of a community, ABCD identifies and harnesses the skills, resources, and strengths of community members to foster sustainable, transformative change.

Robert D. Lupton’s book, “Toxic Charity,” echoes this sentiment, arguing that the traditional charity model often fosters dependency and undermines dignity. Lupton advocates for a shift towards a more collaborative and empowering approach, one that emphasizes development, capacity building, and genuine partnership.

To create a truly helpful environment that fosters development and capacity-building, consider these guiding principles:

  1. Listen and learn: Get to know each other, by deeply listening and understanding the unique perspectives, strengths, experiences, and challenges of those you aim to walk beside.
  2. Focus on strengths: Foster the capabilities of community members to achieve self-reliance, independence, and self-sufficiency.
  3. Mutuality: Work alongside communities and individuals – with them, not for them. Follow the principle: Nothing about me, without me.
  4. Sustainability: Prioritize long-term development and capacity building over short-term fixes.
  5. Person-centric: Adapt to the individual needs and situations, recognizing that one size does not fit all.

Embracing these principles and focusing on development and capacity building allow us to move beyond the harmful aspects of well-intentioned assistance and create lasting, positive change. In the slow, hard work of coming alongside others and helping them grow, we find the true essence of helping that helps.

Thank you, Marcel, for these wise words and for all that you do.

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23 Responses to When helping helps

  1. myrelar says:

    For problems in any country, the main culprit is the policy that the country leads. In recent decades, the main goal of politicians has been personal enrichment.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Wise words, indeed. In the U.S. one cause of homelessness is the high, high cost of rents. According to the author Matthew Desmond, whose recent book is “Poverty, By America”, some folks pay as much as 70 percent of their income for housing. It doesn’t take much to knock them out onto the streets. As you noted, there are other reasons, but the high cost of rents and homes is certainly one of them. Matthew Desmond has been on Fresh Air and On Point, and it’s well worth the time to listen to him. I will be requesting his book via interlibrary loan.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Jane Fritz says:

      You are so right, Laurie, and it’s shameful. We seem to be back to where we were 100+ years ago when labor protests finally brought in the right to have unions to protect decent wages and working conditions. All that has slowly withered away as the corporate lobbyists got the legislation changed and the corporate giants became even wealthier. Why do we let these things happen?


      • Complacency? A while back, I was listening to the writer and actor Wallace Shawn being interviewed on The London Review of Books podcast, and he maintained that complacency was a dangerous trap that it was all too easy to fall into. Once things get comfortable, we tend to forget they always weren’t that way. Just looked up the average price of homes in our area, and it’s about $250,000. Unbelievable! Especially as the average wage is $57,000.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Victoria says:

    Thanks for the mention of the “Toxic Charity” book, Jane. That’s new to me but I subscribe to the belief that dependency undermines dignity…for the precise reasons you’ve shared…I believe in building capacity, no matter where the starting line may be. xo 💕

    Liked by 1 person

  4. debscarey says:

    As a child of the third-world, I understand the concept of toxic charity and of white saviour issues – but realise it’s a tricky one for many without that background.

    I am a fan of tiny houses being used as a solution for homelessness. I recall reading of a policy being tested in Scandinavia (I think) where everyone who was homeless was given somewhere to live without questions asked. Only after that, did they even attempt to solve the issues behind each individual’s homelessness – be that financial, drug-related, mental health etc. Based on sound principle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it was considered successful – but expensive, so… unlikely to be an solution governments will go for.


    • Jane Fritz says:

      You make a few important points, Debs. You are so right that helping “in partnership” is tricky; it’s not easy, it’s not quick, and it’s not something everyone can do. But we can donate to projects that concentrate on self-empowerment and partnership, and we can encourage govts at all levels, including municipal, to support such projects.

      You’ve nailed it with keeping Maslow’s hierarchy in mind. You can’t start being a productive member of society if you don’t have a secure source of shelter and food. You can’t go to school. You can’t work. And all the time the already-rich are becoming richer. It all depends on what kind of society the elected govts think are most important. 😥

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Bernie says:

    If one man can make such a difference. Imagine if we had many “one mans” fanned across the world being activist for change. Bernie

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Oh, Bernie, what a wonderful thought. Maybe every municipality could announce a competition for innovative projects to help make inroads in solving the problem of homelessness or a similar local challenge. At least it would get people thinking.


  6. Wynne Leon says:

    You said it so well with the title – when helping helps. Great guidelines and philosophies.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thank you Jane for sharing Marcel’s positive and upifting philosophy and action. I’d not come across the term “toxic charity” but it speaks reams and conjours up a Victorian approach of gratitude, where those receiving the help are likely to feel “beholden” to the helpers – empowerment and cooperation should, of course, accompany the giving.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Joyce. Beholden is a good way of putting it. We need to find more ways to get beyond that approach to helping, while at the same time assuring that help is there when needed. Not easy, especially when too many govts don’t seem to get it.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Rose says:

    Thank you for this post and shining a light on ‘helping’. Our current system of ‘helping’ is very awkward, for both providers and recipients. I think back to when I was a kid filling out welfare forms for my family, how humiliating that was, and how embarrassing it was to use the food stamps at the grocery store, when the check-out person would look at us and roll their eyes. There were times we said we’d rather starve than use food stamps, until we got hungry… We were fortunate though, we had land, we did a lot of foraging in the woods, hunting, and growing our own food.
    For people who have lost everything, their homes, jobs, family… the emotional/mental toll is beyond most other people’s ability to grasp, and it cannot be easily repaired.
    I loved these words in Marcel’s post, “As Indigenous activist and artist Lila Watson said, “ If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up in mine, then let us work together.”” Let’s work together. This creates partnerships, teamwork, purpose, trust, community, and inspiration. Most people just want their life to matter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Rose, your words and your experiences speak to this complex societal problem so much better than I can because you have walked the talk. You are well positioned to endorse Marcel’s urgings to us all. Thank you for sharing the reality and 2-edged sword of ‘traditional charity’. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Lillie says:

    Hi Jane. My heart breaks seeing these tent cities around us and yet there seem to be more all the time. The tiny home communities are interesting – but I just don’t know! I’d love to see free drug treatment programs everywhere.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jane Fritz says:

      I hear you, Lillie. It’s such a multifaceted problem. All kinds of support systems are needed, including drug programs and mental health support, but housing, a sense of belonging, and a belief in a future surely have to be the foundation upon which the social support can succeed, social programs that lead to self-sufficiency.


  10. Marcel’s principles are spot on. What a terrific service he’s doing for your community. I hope that more of us can follow his lead. Thanks for sharing this important post, Jane.

    Liked by 1 person

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