“Margaret said she had known a lot of shelters – crossed the country twice, staying in shelters along the way – and The Refuge was one of the best, mainly because they didn’t pry and didn’t attach conditions to their help. She wanted to keep her private life private, and at The Refuge she could do this,” writes Elliot Liebow about one of the women he profiled for his book on homeless women, Tell Them Who I Am. Being poor and asking for assistance is hard. It is not easy to admit just how needy one is, what mistakes one may have made along the way, and what personal shortcomings one is still struggling to overcome. However in the United States, getting aid often requires going through a series of questions and divulging such personal information to strangers, agencies, and charities before someone is willing to provide assistance.
In the past I have written about our preference for private charity over government provided aid. I suspect that part of the reason we favor private charity is because we can attach more conditions to the aid and ask more questions of those receiving the aid. It would not be fair for the government to place certain restrictions on how aid can be utilized, to require certain actions of those requiring aid, or to ask certain questions of the petitioners. However, many private charities or religious organizations can limit aid for seemingly trivial reasons. For example, first amendment protections mean that the government could not deny someone aid for wearing an offensive t-shirt, but a religious organization could certainly deny someone aid or assistance if they refused to change out of an offensive shirt.
What I think is important to realize from Liebow’s quote is that there is an additional issue beyond charitable strings and limitations that goes with the questioning and lack of agency that people experience when asking for aid. The questions people face are often repetitive, sometimes don’t seem relevant, and can be prying. People lose their sense of privacy and individuality, something most of us prize and assume to be ours by default, similar to how we think of constitutional rights (in some senses privacy is a constitutional right). Liebow continues, “To the petitioner, it is as if the wall of questions that stands between her and life’s necessities is a hurdle to be scaled only by those willing to leave their pride and privacy behind them.”
Many of us have made mistakes that make us cringe when we look back on them. Hopefully most of us have appropriately processed what went wrong and learned from our mistakes, but nevertheless, we don’t normally like to think back on our worst moments. We certainly don’t like to have people bring those moments up over and over and ask us to keep reliving them or remembering them. Even if we have accepted our mistakes and learned important lessons, we want to leave those mistakes in the past and move forward. The continual questioning and lack of privacy for those in needs means they can never move forward from their mistakes. They become defined by their errors, poor judgement, past laziness, previous drug use, and any other potential cause of their poverty and homelessness. They can’t move forward because they need help and can’t receive help unless they are willing to give up any privacy and pride and live within their worst histories. The questioning and limitations we place on aid seem harmless and sensible to the donor, but to those who need aid for daily survival, it can be humiliating and make everything feel much more difficult for them. “It is difficult to appreciate the intensity of feeling, the bone-deep resentment that many of the women felt at always having to answer questions,” Liebow wrote.