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The Greater Good

Apr 12 / Ernest Wiggins

On a sunny morning in March, I saw a panhandler pushing a shopping cart through a parking lot and approaching a couple outside of an Office Depot.

The lady put a greenback in the panhandler's fist; he thanked her and turned to leave.

"Tell me your name so I can pray for you," she said.

The panhandler told her. She said God would deliver blessings to him. Then she got in a car with her companion and rode off.

Thoughts and Prayers

I thought about that exchange for quite a while, unsure what to make of the lady's certainty that the panhandler's fortunes would change, if indeed that is what she was saying, once God knew of his predicament.

What if the panhandler, whom I assumed was one of the city’s large homeless population, had himself been seeking blessings from the Creator with little to show for his supplications? Were the lady's prayers somehow more effective than his? Did she have a more direct line to the divine? Would she somehow receive more favor?

Chronic Homelessness

The chronically homeless face physical and mental health challenges. My impression has been that many of them wish, after a donation or some other immediate relief, just to be left alone.

What do heavenly blessings look like to such a person? I am not sure, but I think agencies with the mission of servicing these folks must move decisively beyond “thoughts and prayers” to make things happen for the growing number of unsheltered people.

The U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness reported in 2016, “(P)ermanent housing with individually tailored supportive services is the solution to chronic homelessness. To make sure all individuals experiencing chronic homelessness are on a quick path to permanent housing – and that no one else falls into chronic homelessness – communities need robust, coordinated systems that are focused on the same shared outcomes.”

I am not sure how local communities are faring in creating “robust, coordinated systems.”

According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, 2023 saw the highest recorded number of people experiencing homelessness since the agency began keeping records in 2007. [2023-AHAR-Part-1.pdf (]

According to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, “People experiencing chronic homelessness typically have complex and long-term health conditions, such as mental illness, substance use disorders, physical disabilities, or other medical conditions. Once they become homeless — regardless of what immediately caused them to lose their housing — it is difficult for them to get back into housing and they can face long or repeated episodes of homelessness” (Chronically Homeless - National Alliance to End Homelessness).

These conditions and circumstances make life especially difficult for those without resources or social networks. They are left to rely on the beneficence of others.

Faith and Hope

I try not to disparage the faith community for their reliance on prayer as a stabilizing practice. It is harmless, I think, if people understand it is a charitable expression that can lift spirits and not a promise.

However, I do worry about the speed at which some believers (and not a few of them in positions of political leadership) relegate human suffering to the universe's support rather than secure the kind of long-term help that fills the belly, fits the feet, and moves the homeless out of parking lots and into permanent shelter.

© The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel by Mariotto Albertinelli. The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel | Harvard Art Museums

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About the blogger

Ernest Wiggins, Writer / Independent Scholar

Ernest L. Wiggins is a professor emeritus of journalism and mass communications at the University of South Carolina. For nearly 30 years, Wiggins taught professional journalism, news media, and community engagement, public opinion and persuasion, and mass media criticism, among other courses.

His research interests focused on mass media’s representation of marginalized communities, primarily news agencies. A native of Washington, D.C., Wiggins was a reporter and editor at the Columbia Record and The State newspapers before joining the faculty at USC, where he earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees.

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