Helping the poor, particularly homeless people, has caused a clash of values to surface in our lovely Ventura County. One wouldn’t think that helping someone would generate controversy, but it can and does. On one hand, some insist that if people were just more responsible, they wouldn’t be poor and they certainly would not be homeless. On the other hand some say that we should be a giving and kind community of Good Samaritans and not blame the poor for being poor. Yet we all agree that both responsibility and kindness are excellent virtues.
The conflict in a nutshell is seen in the terms “hand up” versus “hand out.”
When I was recently asked the difference between the terms, I said that it has to do, first, with perspective and, second, with results. By “perspective” I mean that depending on their political or religious perspective, two different people might describe the same act as a “hand up” or a “hand out.” By “results” I mean that if a person were somehow advanced toward a better life resulting from a given service, we would almost universally say the assistance was a “hand up.” If, on the other hand, the person did not move forward, we might claim the assistance provided was merely a “hand out” because there was no positive result.
At Community Action we have been helping people and changing lives in Ventura County for 50 years. Our mission is to help people overcome poverty with advocacy, services and partnerships that promote dignity and self-sufficiency. True to our mission, we actually refuse to provide help in a way that diminishes a person’s dignity.
Carrying out our mission day-to-day means that we will help people first survive poverty and then rise above it. Every day, we work with people at different stages of their path toward stability and self-reliance. The harsh reality is that survival comes first, even if others hold to the perspective that our initial help is a “hand out.”
Across all of our services, we establish eligibility criteria and expected outcomes so that the community can, in good conscience, support what we do. Our objective is to provide support when required and to pave the way for self-sufficiency when possible. Self-sufficiency for some is just not possible; for those persons, we seek to find permanent supports so that they can live with dignity. Nothing is more satisfying than to provide a hand to someone and later to see them thriving.
Our community can actually have it both ways. We simply need to find balance. We need to be gentle enough that we do not lose our sense of caring, and we need to be firm enough that we do not foster irresponsibility.
It is not easy. It will require patience. That’s a virtue, too.
Tim Hockett is Executive Director of Community Action of Ventura County. CAVC has entered its 50th year of helping people and changing lives in Ventura County. Find out more at www.ca-vc.org.