Blog Action Day: Poverty from San Francisco to Mexico
Posted by Tony & Cheri on October 15, 2008
Today is Blog Action Day 2008, a day when thousands of bloggers all over the world post about a single topic to raise awareness, start discussions and in a small way change the world. This year’s topic is poverty.
We feel we have a somewhat unique view of having seen different types of poverty in different types of places.
We started our life together in San Francisco, one of the great cities of the world. Like most great cities, it has culture and business, affluence…and poverty. The poverty that we saw in San Francisco that touched our hearts was the abundance of homeless people. For a number of reasons, San Francisco has a large homeless population primarily made up of those with substance abuse addictions, physical limitations or mental illnesses. They live in doorways and alleys. They feed out of garbage cans and on leftovers found on the street. We wish we were describing stray animals, but we are describing human beings. In the middle of a giant metropolitan area, they are invisible and forgotten much of the time. The city of San Francisco, its charities and its churches have struggled for decades with this problem and have never found a workable solution. And we fear with the current economic downtrend it may get worse, as those on the bottom tend to get help last.
We decided long ago that our small contribution would be as simple and direct as could be. We decided one Christmas Eve just to feed a few people. We bought some ham, turkey and bread and made sandwiches. We put them in bags with a box of juice, some cookies and chips and a napkin. It wasn’t a big deal; it was us and our son who was about 11 when we started (he’s 25 now). We went out that night and looked for homeless people to offer food to. We had about 40 bags. They were gone in about 10 minutes. Nobody shoved; nobody threatened us. We got a lot of thank yous and god bless yous. And at the end, people asked us, “is there any more?”
We did it again the next year, making more bags this time. Through the years our little attempt at direct help grew and grew. It became Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve. Friends and family found out about it, and preparation day became a party. We started adding blankets and clothing to our distribution. Sometimes we’d give socks and gloves–whatever we could easily distribute and place in the hands of someone who needed it. Towards the end we were reaching over 300 people a night. And we always felt at the end of a night that it wasn’t enough.
It wasn’t organized, incorporated or authorized by anybody. The people who got the food and clothing might in some people’s opinion not deserve it. They were junkies, drunks and crazies. But they were cold and hungry and happy for the help.
We don’t talk about this because we did anything special. We didn’t. We were inspired by hearing about other people who did the same thing. Some did less; many did much more. What we took away from it is that you don’t have to wait for somebody else to solve the problem. Sometimes the problem is just too big to be solved. But you can still help. We and our friends and family didn’t try to eliminate poverty or homelessness. We just tried to feed some people and keep their feet warm for a night. We still believe that direct one-on-one action is the solution to many of the world’s problems.
When we moved to Mexico, we saw a different kind of poverty. We saw not the poverty of the forgotten individual but the institutionalized poverty of the third world, where not being able to get health care or full-time employment or regular food is the norm, not the exception. This really came home to us when we joined with friends last year to help the small village of Mahahual after it had been devastated by Hurricane Dean.
The problem with third world poverty is that the accomplishments of generations to gain some sort of consistent foothold in life can be wiped out in a second by disease or disaster. That’s what happened in Mahahual. Folks who had finally gotten a small piece of swampy land and built a home with a thatched roof, stick walls and meals regularly prepared over an outdoor fire lost even that when the big storm tore through. For reasons which are too complex to be deciphered here by us, economic; political; geographical and climate issues all combined in a way that kept Mahahual from being aided by organized assistance. Again, personal direct action became the key to survival for many people. We’ve talked a lot on this blog about the Mahahual rescue project in which we joined with so many wonderful people. The point we raise now is again that sometimes you just have to help in any way you can by filling the hand of a person in need. It may not be a permanent solution. It may not offer them a job or set up a program or a plan. But sometimes people just need food, water, help or a smile to get them through one more day.
However, we’re not advocating people turn their backs on charities or institutions. Just the opposite. The individual direct help that we talk about is a temporary stopgap. People still need greater assistance such as groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army can give. And we urge people to make their contributions to those organizations not only in times of disaster and not only during the holidays, but as a function of their lives. And remember, the time you volunteer is just as valuable–even more valuable–than your monetary donation.
In closing we’d like to suggest people take a look at a program we think is very interesting and positive, being microlending. Microlending is the idea of loaning small amounts of money to people in developing countries to develop businesses by which to better their lives. Most people in the third world cannot get institutional loans. Either the money is not available, they have no collateral or they simply have no access to an institution that would make such a loan. We are not talking about millions of dollars here for a giant auto factory or beach resort. We are talking about loans of $200 or $300 to open a small store or restaurant, or a herd of cattle to start a ranch. Yes it can be risky to loan even small amounts of money to someone you’ve never met or a country that you’ve never seen, but it’s really not about the money. It’s really an investment in the people. If this kind of hands-across-the-border help appeals to you, we suggest you do a little research, starting with the book Banker to the Poor by Nobel Peace Price winner Muhammad Yunus. Also, you might want to check out Kiva.org. This organization allows individuals to easily make small loans to specific people across the world. Take a look at this website to see not only what other people need, but to have a clear how understanding how lucky the rest of us really are.
Last but not least, we’d like to really thank our friend Michele, who blogs at Life’s a Beach, who let us know about Blog Action Day and who issued a challenge to other real estate professionals to aid the people in a small town in Belize. Kudos, Michele!