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If You’re Waiting for the Other Shoe to Drop, Look Down

By Tony Panaccio

“Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”

-- Martin Luther King, Jr.

The very first reports of homelessness in America stretch back to the 1640s, and, of course, society blamed the homeless for their plight.

“Colonists blamed the moral deficiencies of the unhoused as the cause of their homelessness, assuming that persons in God’s good graces would not be so unfortunate,” writes Jen Beardsley, the Local Homeless Coalition Coordinator for the Texas Homeless Network. “While Americans’ worldviews seem significantly changed since then, the tendency to fixate on individual traits to rationalize homelessness endures to this day. Hyperfocus on the individual generally drives municipalities to criminalize poverty and homelessness instead of investing in systems that end extreme poverty, such as increasing affordable housing stock.”

The evidence of those centuries old biases are evident in the state of philanthropy today, which, quite frankly, is simply not up to the new post-COVID challenges facing it. The bottom line is that unmet needs are growing at an exponential rate as charitable giving lapses into its most anemic state since the Great Depression.

Let’s start with some chilling numbers.

  • 582,462 individuals are experiencing homelessness in America, an increase of about 2,000 people since the last complete census conducted in 2020.

  • About 30 percent of people without homes are experiencing chronic patterns of homelessness.

  • Most states saw their homeless populations rise since 2019, including four where the tally more than doubled (Delaware, Vermont, Louisiana, Maine).

  • More than a quarter of those experiencing homelessness are families with (or and) children

  • More than 53 million people turned to food banks, food pantries and meal programs for help in 2021, one-third more than prior to the pandemic.

  • Approximately one in five adults reported experiencing household food insecurity. High food price inflation, along with elevated costs for other basic needs, such as transportation and rent, have likely eroded food budgets in the last year.

  • More working people than ever are experiencing food insecurity. In June 2022, 17.3 percent of employed adults reported food insecurity versus 30.8 percent of those who reported they were not working.

Moreover, budget cuts in the governmental safety net for the poor significantly escalate the pressure on that OTHER safety net, the last line of defense for the poor – the safety net built by houses of faith. Those bulwarks, along with the clergy who fortify them, are fading away. Over the last few decades, organized religious entities have faced a wide array of hurdles to keep serving the least of us in meaningful ways. They include:

So, what happens when the unhoused can't find an open shelter? What happens when millions of hungry Americans can’t find an open food pantry? Will that cause an increase in crime? The U.S. Department of Justice believes that the typical incarcerated offender is undereducated, unemployed and living in poverty before they break the law. In fact, many career criminals grew up that way.

Finally, a statistical deep dive on charitable giving revealed that the poor donate to charity a much higher percentage of their income than do the wealthy. Those who make up to $15,000 annually also donate an average of $1,471 each year, a little more than 9 percent of their income. Meanwhile, those who earn in the $200K to $250K range, offer up only an average of $5,472, roughly 2 percent of their income.

That’s why we need a wholesale change in the culture of giving, the rate of giving and the urgency of giving, because the safety net upon which we’ve always relied to take a bite out of poverty is now barely nibbling around the edges as its resources and staff silently slip away.

Note: The Parsonage Project, a new nonprofit organization, has taken on the mission above with a multi-faith, multi-ethnic management team. They are hosting a donor Zoom call on Saturday, April 22, 2023, and if you’d like to join to find out more about the effort, please click here to register.

(Tony Panaccio is a former award-winning journalist and is now the VP of Communications for the Parsonage Project.)

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