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Where the Heart Is- A look into the homeless of Philadelphia. Part Three

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By request, some of the names and locations in this article have been concealed.

A close friend once taught me a religious story about the power of giving.    The homeless in Philadlephia

The story was about wealthy man who frequently gave generous donations to the church and asked the priest if he was the most valuable attendee. The priest told him that he was not the greatest donator to the church and showed him an elderly woman who was donating a penny to the donation box. When the man asked how her donation was greater than his, the priest explained how her donation of a penny was greater because it was her last. When talking about charity, it’s easy for us to think that one’s value is based on quantity, not quality. This realization came to me when I took a good and hard look at the trend that mainstream philanthropy has taken.

The act of giving has always been a grey area for a majority of American culture. Charity has digressed from the simple act of giving aid to those who are less fortunate than us without asking for any compensation to an industry that is strictly aimed towards promoting one’s reputation and indirect profit. One of the most salient lessons I have learned throughout my encounters with the homeless of Philadelphia was that there is a sufficient amount of people who all have the similar worldview that greed is what ruins lives. Although there are plenty of homeless individuals who have given the less fortunate a distorted reputation as freeloaders and social mooches, my articles have tended to focus on the homeless individual who are strongly philanthropic considering how little they have to their names.

It would be hard for anyone, including myself, to watch the footage of the devastation of Haiti and not have some inclination of sympathy or charity toward those whose lives were ruined by the earthquake. What is convenient for charitable foundations such as Yele’ Haiti  or The American Red Cross is that our state as a technologically prestigious culture makes donating money as simple as texting on our cell phones.

Sounds simple enough, right? A middle class couple sits at their TV when Oprah, Sting, Madonna, Shakira, Beyonce’, Bono and Rihanna, or any Madonna performs at Hope for Haiti telethon. Photograph: WireImage.comother single-named philanthropist appears on the screen and asks for a donation; the couple (who are sympathetic to the devastation on the screen with sad music in the background) rush to their iPhone or Blackberry, text a donation, and feel great about their participation in this oh so philanthropic act of selflessness. If there is anything that fits the spot of “most American type of vanity,” sending a text message for a reason to feel good about yourself would definitely take the cake. At this point in the charitable process, that same couple’s money is added to the metaphoric thermometer in the TV studio packed with stars, one of those stars will announce the total donations at the moment, the couple at home feels great, the celebrity gets a little credit and recognition for announcing the total (which ultimately helps their career) and Haiti gets 10 extra bucks. Everybody wins.

But help is help, and Haiti certainly needs it. If it takes Bono and Oprah to get Americans to help others to the extent that we have, then so be it. When I was working on this segment for the “Where the Heart is” series, I met a group of homeless individuals who didn’t see the “Hope for Haiti” benefit concert, but still found it in their conscious to gather donations to give to those who’s lives were ruined by the earthquake in Haiti.

One of them, a Haitian native named Robin who was part of the donation drive, was eager to express his views on philanthropy to me in a Homeless in Philadelphia.conversation at his shelter. “These men, I know these men. They are here for a reason. It is not a very good reason, but it is just, and they are just as giving as a person who use[s] their cell phone to give to Haiti.” Robin took me to the room where they kept the donations that he and others in the shelter. He showed me boxes that were filled with shoes, canned food, and hand-me-down clothes.

Robin continued to explain his philosophy on the power of gratitude and giving as he sifted through boxes. “I came to America for a better life. It will take some time, but it is unfortunate for me to say that despite my homelessness, I have a much better life than those in Haiti and I give thanks to God for this.”

What was so touching about Robin’s gratitude was that he knew better than anyone that although he didn’t own the roof over his head, it was still a roof nonetheless and the fact that someone was generous enough to lend it to him was reason enough to help others regardless of his financial status. “I don’t have much to my name, but if I were to sit here and say that I could not give to my country, my place of birth, because I do not have money would be selfish. Money will clothe and feed us, but it will not let you know that it is here for you. It will not send the same message as someone who will give you more than what they have themselves. That is the true power of giving, the ability to touch one’s heart.”

Robin was a man who seemed content with where he was in the social pyramid. When the subject of homelessness came up, Robin had such an optimistic attitude that, if you met him, you would think he was the world’s richest man. “I will not be here for long.” He said about the shelter in which he resides in a passive manner. “My mother, before she died, taught me ‘the more you give – the more you get.’ And my intentions are to give the world as much as I can with God’s help.”

“Do you intend on becoming a religious philanthropist?” I asked. “I give thanks to God everyday for what I have. It is because of him that I can go on and help others, but I would rather be a giving person who is also a man of God than a man of God who also gives. Helping others is my way of honoring what I have learned [through] my faith.”

I doubt that we will be seeing Robin on any telethons, trying to be sincere while reading a cue card at the same time accompanied by celebrity #3010-A. I doubt that we will see him on daytime TV, selling his emotions for donations. And I doubt we will see him selling stylish and trendy wristbands. I imagine him at ground zero of whatever cause calls for his help with the same dedication and humility that he showed with me during my visit.

This is the third installment of “Where the Heart Is”  and I find myself like I did at the end of Part 1 and Part 2: enlightened. Just like the man in Love Park and the forgotten professor, Robin showed me a different way of seeing the human condition. And like the others, Robin asks for nothing. His compensation is helping others, including myself. And if Robin is not an example of what it means to give and be grateful, I certainly don’t know what would be.

(For more information on how to help the homeless initiative for Haiti, or to donate to their shelter, contact Andrew at AndrewP2P@gmail.com )