A couple weeks ago, Bread for the City’s volunteer corps case manager Matt Leasure was profiled in an Elizabeth Benton piece in the San Angelo Standard-Times. He spoke of his first year at Bread for the City, what he’s learned and what he witnesses every day while working the front lines of poverty relief. See what Matt had to say:
“What I’m learning, both from my daily work as a social services case manager at Bread for the City, and from living in the community and exploring D.C. this year, is that our society divides our society’s poor, vigorously, into categories of deserving and undeserving — those who are worthy of our generosity and those who aren’t. At Bread for the City, I spend my time listening to people who’d be easily typecast into both these kinds.
“We all know the deserving kind: They’re the success stories told about in mass mailings intended to raise money for nonprofit organizations. These poor have made bad decisions that are difficult to overcome. They’ve been held down by barriers beyond themselves — by systemic racism, sexism, classism — factors which, if mitigated, could put them on stronger footing.
“But these people are trying, as best they can, to overcome — to make a change and turn their lives around. And sometimes they do.
“The second type of person, though, is in more dire straits — the undeserving poor. They are chronically homeless, chronically addicted to drugs or alcohol, or both. Not just disabled, but debilitated; not just unable, but pretty much unwilling. They’re the people who always come late to their case management appointments if they come at all.
“Every week I see a client, we’ll call him Mr. Johnson, who rolls in on his wheelchair, without an appointment, to tell me he’s moving to Baltimore where he says he has a better case manager. He tells me how terrible my organization is, how little help we are, and that he doesn’t want to work with me anymore.
“He sleeps outside near a metro station because he’s unwilling to sleep in a shelter. When we miraculously managed to connect him to better housing, Mr. Johnson refused to move. He’d rather die on the streets where he’s been for 35 years, because ‘no one cares’ about him, ‘no one is helping’ him. People aren’t doing their jobs’ the way they’re supposed to.
“He may just die on the streets like he says he will, but if Mr. Johnson does get into housing we certainly won’t be writing any blogs about it. At least not honest ones. You see, truthful descriptions of the struggle to conquer homelessness, mental illness and poverty don’t engender much generosity. They don’t inspire people to donate.
“Mr. Johnson is not the deserving poor. For some, he’s hopeless.
“And it only makes sense that we wouldn’t want to raise our taxes for him, or downsize our houses or sell our extra cars. After all, he doesn’t want help anyway.
“So, that’s what I’ll be wondering about when I walk away from this year — can we start giving, at real personal cost, to people we don’t think deserve it? Would we be willing to build a society that gives, that sacrifices, that cares for Mr. Johnson — even if he doesn’t care for himself?
“As I look back at a tough year, I’ve come to believe that our generosity cannot be defined by deserving and undeserving. Hope is for everyone. Even when, especially when, they have given up on themselves.”
I’m pleased to report that since this article came out, Matt has agreed to stay on at Bread for the City as a full-time case manager. We are thankful for your hard work, Matt.
Special thanks to Elizabeth Benton for her work on the original article and for sharing Matt’s story.