Thursday, August 19, 2010

Habitat for Humanity Just Rubs Me the Wrong Way

I think I'm fairly average in the charitable department.  There are certain organizations that I donate to regularly and I generally support my friends for the various "a-thons".  I've even been known to partake in a few "a-thons" myself although I absolutely hate asking people for money.

That said, Habitat for Humanity just bugs me.

Every year my office encourages the staff to spend a day volunteering for HfH and every year a colleague or two asks me if I'm going to join in and build a house.  And every year when I politely decline, I'm asked why not.  People should really know better than that.  It takes incredible restraint for me to keep my opinions to myself, but if you come right out and ask, I'm gonna lay it on you!

So here's the deal.  HfH works as follows:

  • Habitat for Humanity builds homes using volunteer labour and donated materials.
  • Homes are sold to partner families with no monetary down payment required. However, they must contribute "sweat equity” in the form of 500 volunteer hours.
  • Families receive an affordable and sustainable no-interest mortgage, with monthly payments based on 25% to 30% of the family's monthly income.
Now, I work my butt off in order to afford my house.  I make well thought out decisions on how I'm going to spend my money so that I could afford the down payment to begin with and so that I can continue to pay down my mortgage.  I live within my means and deny myself luxuries if they will prevent me from affording the basics.

I know that there are many people out there who have just been bitch slapped by life in ways in which they have absolutely no control.  I know some people personally and they don't ask for handouts from anyone - would even be offended if they were offered.  Instead they work hard and do whatever they have to in order to make ends meet. 

I think my issues with HfH probably go back to the various articles I've seen in the newspaper since I was a teenager.  You've probably seen similar stories of people complaining that welfare doesn't provide enough of an income to survive.  Meanwhile the photo with the story shows the person in question cigarette in hand and a case of beer in the background.  Even as a 15 year old I could see the contradiction there.  
On a more personal note, I knew a guy who was on welfare.  The only thing that the government asked was that he fill out a weekly form detailing the ways that he tried to find work.  Each week he would go to a few places he knew weren't hiring and ask for work.  On the off chance that they offered him an application, he would throw it out and leave that one off his list.  Then he would go home with a bottle of Jack Daniel's.

I just can't trust that these houses are going to people that truly deserve them or that there aren't better ways to help them out of their problems.  Sometimes I feel like we're rewarding bad decisions.  I heard of one family who arrived each day to work on their house driving a luxury sedan.  Granted I never actually saw this and am taking the word of a friend, but can we say bad priorities???  If you can't afford a mortgage then maybe you should have bought an Accent instead.  Then there are the people with multiple children.  (This is where I get those horrible looks like I eat babies for breakfast.)  In my eyes if you can't afford to feed, clothe and provide proper shelter for children then you shouldn't have had them.  Having children is a choice.  In this day and age it can rarely even be called an accident.  I'm reluctant to draw attention to specific people, but there is a lovely story on the HfH site detailing one woman who had TWO ADDITIONAL children while waiting for her house to be built.

For me it all boils down to that proverb about giving a fish or teaching how to fish.  Maybe the money and time could be better spent helping these people get a better education, create resumes, find viable work or learn how to budget their money.  (All of which already have existing government programs ready and willing to help.)  If they have children, maybe volunteers could spend time doing childcare while the parents take classes or go on interviews.  There are many other options that I would support over HfH.

In the end, if you believe that HfH is a wonderful program, by all means put on your work boots and go pound in a nail or two.  Just don't invite me to come along.


  1. I personally know a family (single mom who fled an abusive relationship) who benefitted from a Habitat House. Not everyone who lives in poverty abuses the system. In fact I'm sure many more don't than those few who might. My cousin works for Habitat, and has shared many success stories. While HfH isn't for everyone, I just disagree with writing off the whole concept of helping people into safe affordable housing based on the idea that some folks may not make the best decisions.

  2. "I just can't trust that these houses are going to people that truly deserve them or that there aren't better ways to help them out of their problems. Sometimes I feel like we're rewarding bad decisions" This can be said for EVERY charity, and I think unless you have personal experience and background information that can be substantiated that you should not be saying that this charity isn't worth peoples time. This charity doesn't ask people for money, instead it asks for their time, which I think is a much better alternative. Just because you know people who have been bitch slapped by life and wouldn't accept help, doesn't mean that there aren't people out there who are willing and need to accept the help.
    "In my eyes if you can't afford to feed, clothe and provide proper shelter for children then you shouldn't have had them. Having children is a choice." WOW. Maybe you need to realize that these people may have been able to "afford" their children when they had them but something happened in their life where they could no longer afford it. Maybe the husband/wife died and the remaining spouse lost their job in the recession. Maybe their family is not in the country or not alive to provide them any support. I think I've said enough. You may deem this charity "unworthy" of your time and money, but before you make assumptions, maybe you should imagine the possibilites that have put these people in these situations, and the background knowledge you have on the charity. I'm not saying everyone that gets a house deserves it, but I doubt the majority of them don't.

  3. @Anonymous #1

    I'm thrilled to hear about that family. I hope they're doing well.

    No, not everyone abuses the system. But success stories are subjective. The woman I noted in my post is a success story according to the HfH web site. Therefore, until I'm the one choosing who gets approved (or someone who thinks like me) then I can't personally support the organization. If you feel that this is a success story then I encourage you to support them.

    I didn't write off helping people into affordable housing. I just don't agree with this method. I don't see it as a good use of resources and I don't feel that the chosen families learn anything (other than how to build a house).
    What I would like to see change would be:
    1. Instead of building houses, build Tri-Plexes or Six-Plexes. Land is expensive and this would be a more efficient use of resources to help more families in need (I'm sure there are zoning issues, but nothing that couldn't be solved)
    2. HfH would retain ownership and the tenants would rent instead of having a mortgage
    3. Lower the percentage of income required as rent from 30% to maybe 15%-20%. There would be more tenants paying so the reduction would still allow sufficient income to cover future projects. The families would have a little more ability to save money for the future. If and when their incomes increase to a point where the percentage is higher than is practical for living expenses, it's time to move on and buy their own house then a new family in need can take their place - a somewhat constant revolving door to help even more families without having to build additional units.
    4. While the families are living in the HfH units, use some of the rental income to provide career counselling and budgeting advice or any of the other services I mentioned in my post.
    There, you have just provided a family with the boost they needed while teaching them how to be financially independent and you were able to help additional families that you wouldn't have been able to help with the current system.

  4. @ Anonymous #2
    I didn't say this charity wasn't worth people's time. In fact I encouraged people to support it if they agreed with it. I did say that I wouldn't support it.
    I will agree with you that time can be a better alternative than money. (I have also been known to volunteer.)
    I want to clarify something on the bitch slapping paragraph (and I think this addresses the rest of your comment). My intent here (and obviously I didn't succeed) was to point out that those who have been bitch slapped by life are the ones that I feel are absolutely deserving. If I was given the task of approving housing applications, these are the people I would choose. And I only mentioned that they insisted on pulling themselves up by their own boot straps because I greatly admire them for it. But if someone truly needs help I hope they scream for it from the roof tops and I hope they get what they need. What I disagree on is what it is that they need and how it should be provided (see prior comment).

  5. With an open mind, I suggest you consider research related to HfH as opposed to anecdotal evidence and also look up the social determinants of health. I agree with almost everything you've said in your rant: the abuse, the priorities, the extra kids. However, the actions of a few should not create your opinion. And since I know you prefer to take an educated stance, I suggest you do more research and allow personal experience to keep your skepticism healthy rather than forming your opinions for you.

    Based on what I know about SDoH, abuse of the welfare system, cost of health care, etc., I stand on the complete opposite soap box. It would be cheaper for the government (yes, the government and not a charity) to give houses to the disadvantaged. I look forward to a fun discussion with you on this!

  6. Well, I think HfH is one of the few charities that actually has it right. Help people get what they really need: housing. Housing is the single biggest determinant of health. Without adequate housing at an affordable price, people are destined to be unhealthy and dependent on multiple social services. Yes, we all would love to have a house with an interest-free mortgage, but we already have multiple other advantages that HfH recipients didn't have. We can afford our homes and still have money for good food, transportation, clothing... People who benefit from HfH don't.

    If the government gave all homeless people a home, welfare rates would decrease, the burden on the health care system would decrease, drug and alcohol abuse would drop, theft rates would drop, child and spousal abuse rates would drop, people's level of education would increase, their ability to be self-sustaining would increase, the benefits, while largely immeasurable, would be immense. However, that would be upstream thinking and our system is not designed for that. We prefer to band-aid the problem rather than solving its root cause.

    Those of us who grew up with our parents, went to school regularly, ate regularly, have a private place to bathe, and a healthy level of self have very little insight into the intestinal fortitude it takes for many of the HfH recipients have to get out of bed daily. Very few of us could pull ourselves up by our bootstraps (which, btw, is physically impossible) in a society where self-sufficiency is required and accepting handouts is frowned upon and the person is discriminated against.

    Honestly, Kerry, HfH is one of the few charities that I believe you should support. SDoH proves that inadequate housing is the number one reason people "fail" at life. The atrocities that many of these people have survived is beyond either of our worst nightmares.

  7. Okay I just read the CSDH report.

    I agree that proper housing is important for health - although I wouldn't say it is the single biggest determinant. It was only a small portion of the CSDH report. There are many aspects that work together to create create good health. Generally when they referred to inadequate housing, they were referring to third world countries where inadequate housing means something very different than what it means in North America. I do not agree that proper housing = ownership of a house. It's an inefficient use of resources and the people receiving the houses learn nothing in the process (other than things like how to put up drywall). Proper housing (to me) = safe, clean, affordable shelter with appropriate amenities (i.e. heat & running water). I have detailed in the comments above how I feel HfH could be more efficient and helpful in their methodology - multi-plexes, rental agreements, various forms of counselling etc - more families helped and in a more well rounded way.

    You have not stated why you feel their methodology is the best for achieving the end goal.

    I don't see any reason why giving someone a house would decrease all of the ills that you have listed. Please provide your evidence. What studies have been done to prove causation (and not simply correlation). Even if there is some truth to this, I don't see why it would need to be a house and not just an affordable and clean apartment. Welfare rates might decrease because you wouldn't have to factor housing costs into the monthly cheques, but you would still have to factor it in overall as you must cover the cost of the house. I don't believe (until I see evidence) that people will stop hitting their kids because they have a house, that people will stop being alcoholics because they have a house, that people will run to sign up for University because they have a house, etc.

    I can't support something simply because I agree with the generalized end goal. I must also agree with how they attain that goal. For example I believe that all children should be provided with a good education, but I couldn't support an organization that provided that education by removing children from their homes and families and sending them to a distant boarding school for 15 years. There needs to be a more appropriate means of reaching the goal.