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Delivering Charity With Dignity

cardboard sign, possibly from homeless person, with the simple message '$?' propped against a brick wall.
photo by Eli Christman

Between my time on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in downtown Austin, Texas, I have lived within yards of the homeless for much of my adult life.

I have walked by homeless people nearly every day in both cities. They have often asked me to spare a dollar or some change, but I have never reached into my pocket. Is this because I don’t find the homeless worthy of my charity? Far from it.

My own hard work is only one component of my success. I’ve also been blessed with supportive parents, excellent educational opportunities, good physical and mental health, talents in relatively lucrative areas and a great deal of good luck. My father tells lots of his stories over and over, but I only recall him telling me once that his mother had a saying: “but for the grace of God goes me.” It turns out that phrase is my grandmother’s take on a 16th century paraphrase of a Bible verse, but even hearing it just once had an incredible impact on me. It helped me recognize that although people’s individual decisions can heavily influence their success or failure, much of our circumstances are outside of our control.

I therefore feel conflicted whenever I see someone visibly less fortunate than me. While I am moved by the person’s situation, I realize that directly giving the individual cash will rarely be the best way to help improve his or her situation in the long term. I also can’t imagine the indignity I would feel begging strangers for the help, yet I don’t have the means to change these individuals’ lives one at a time. When I do not give to people soliciting me on the street, it is because I think there is a better way to help.

As a financial planner, I often focus on efficiency in charitable giving, which can allow gifts to go further. The recent tax reform made getting any sort of charitable deduction more difficult for many Americans, but with a bit of effort – and maybe the help of a good financial planner – you can structure your charitable giving in a way that helps you secure a tax deduction. That means you can give more to your preferred charity and create a more lasting impact.

Just because I do not generally give money to individuals when asked, that does not mean I think they are undeserving. I’ve gotten a hand up in life, and I think everyone deserves some help. For that reason, I have sought out and supported charities that help the homeless to help themselves. One such organization is Caritas of Austin, which is similar to many other Caritas organizations throughout the country. These groups give a hand up to people who are homeless, food insecure or otherwise struggling. Among other initiatives, they help provide a food pantry, community kitchen and, ultimately, stable housing for the homeless. They find that establishing a stable household is often the impetus that allows people to become contributing members of the community.

A second organization I’ve recently identified and supported is Art From The Streets. This Austin-based organization provides open studio time to Austin’s homeless and formerly homeless residents. The organization hosts an annual art show at the Austin Convention Center to sell the art created through the program. The artists run booths themselves and are able to retain the proceeds, apart from a nominal fee. Some of the art is rudimentary, but the show features other pieces that rival fine art produced by classically trained artists.

I attended this year’s art show and was reminded of a story I recently read on Facebook. The lesson from the story was that buying something at an elevated price from someone in need can be “charity wrapped with dignity.” With this story in mind, I shopped for art and bought much more than I would have at a for-profit show. The Art From The Streets Instagram quoted Jeremiah Hurta, an artist from whom I purchased two pieces, as saying that his insanity inspires his art. Even without sharing Jeremiah’s experiences, I found his work quite appealing. In fact, I was pleased with all of my purchases, while the artists I bought from were rewarded for their hard work.

The approach to charity exercised by Caritas and Art From The Streets fits my view of the best way to help. They provide a benefit to the homeless or those with precarious housing situations, without making them feel less valuable than people who have traditional homes. People who have experienced setbacks in their lives should not have to lose their dignity.

I’m eager to continue supporting organizations that empower the homeless and others in need in my community. How do you like to support charity? Are there organizations that you support that also show the less fortunate that they possess innate talent that’s valuable?

Client Service Manager Benjamin C. Sullivan, who is based in our Austin, Texas office, contributed several chapters to our firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55, including Chapter 13, “Federal Income Tax,” and Chapter 16, “Investment Psychology.”

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