I first met Rudolph on the day before Christmas, three years ago.
He was dressed in a tattered Army jacket and was begging for change in downtown Baltimore.
Rudolph had an honest face, a calm demeanor, and a desperate look in his eyes that was pleading for help.
I introduced myself — as I typically do with homeless people to varying results — and Rudolph greeted me graciously. He explained that he was an Army veteran who was dealing with PTSD and was currently living in a tent under the I-83 bridge.
I know the “tent city” well, after many years working in the city — especially during my time teaching English at the prison next door. It hosts several dozen tents and a community of homeless people who simply have nowhere else to go. During the winter, our shelters are overrun and understaffed, and there are frankly not too many places to find food and comfort in Baltimore.
I took Rudolph to the local soup shop and ordered us lunch. If memory serves, he ordered broccoli and cheddar soup, because he “hadn’t been able to eat enough vegetables lately.”
While sopping up that soup with crusty bread and hot tea, he told me his story…
After leaving the Army, Rudolph tried his best to find odd jobs. He worked in restaurants, hospitals, and even office buildings like mine, where he did janitorial work. But the mental health issues he had after returning from Afghanistan continued to haunt him wherever he went. Rudolph had trouble focusing for long periods of time. The horrors that he experienced in war zones led him to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.
He lost all of those jobs for obvious reasons.
Down and Out
But his employment death knell came when he got a job at the Laurel horse racing track in Maryland. Rudolph was working hard — taking out the trash, scrubbing bathrooms, and doing, as he put it, everything that most people didn’t want to do. Then a shady coworker came to him with an easy way to bank some quick cash: sell some marijuana to a cohort of regulars at the track.
It seemed like an easy decision. Why waste the whole day cleaning up bathrooms when he could make an easy buck handing off a bag of weed to some old gambler? The plot worked for a few weeks, but eventually, the hustle caught up to him.
He sold a few joints to an undercover cop and was sent to jail.
Rudolph's criminal record for distribution of drugs kept him from finding a job. The drug war has made millions of citizens persona-non-grata when it comes to finding jobs.
(Editor’s Note: Thankfully this is already changing due to new cannabis laws.)
That was why he was living in a tent and begging for money. He simply didn’t know what else to do.
Millions of Americans find themselves in the same position. Whether it’s PTSD, substance abuse, or serious mental illness, untold numbers of people will find themselves cold, alone, and scared this year.
Charity is a touchy subject. I think most of us go through an analysis paralysis when we start looking at the best places to donate our hard-earned money.
My thought? Just feed people…
It’s not political, it’s not religious — it’s just the right thing to do. If we’re doing well enough to feed our family and put a roof over our heads, I think we should be making sure that nobody goes hungry. Let’s get folks a hot meal, at the very least.
While there are certainly charities that spend far too much money attracting high-paid CEOs and burning money on cringe-worthy infomercials, there are plenty of charities that are effective in putting your goodwill to work and actually serving the most vulnerable people around us.
I’ll give you two today that are no-brainers if you think that everyone deserves a Christmas dinner this year…
Action Against Hunger USA
This charity helps prevent and treat undernutrition around the world — especially after disasters and conflicts.
It's been doing this for over 40 years in areas of the world where hunger is most severe. It raises awareness about hunger, clean water, and pretty much anything that needs tending to when it comes to saving people's lives.
Just think about this:
- At least 14 million children suffer from severe acute malnutrition around the world.
- When a child under five dies, malnutrition is a root cause nearly half of the time.
- In less than a decade, the number of acutely malnourished children receiving treatment globally has quintupled: increasing from just over one million in 2009 to more than five million in 2018. Still, just a quarter of acutely malnourished children worldwide currently have access to treatment.
- $45 can provide a full course of life-saving treatment for an undernourished child.
They do great work. One way I decide which charities to invest in is by seeing how they use the dollars that they are given. Action Against Hunger does it right. It spends $3 to raise $100, which earned an A+ from Charity Watch.
You can donate here.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness
We know that ending homelessness is an impossible task. But this charity is doing all it can to help cut down the number of people — like Rudolph — who have no choice but to live on the streets.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness uses “rapid re-housing”, which provides short-term rental assistance and services. The goal is to help people obtain housing quickly, increase self-sufficiency, and stay housed.
Rapid re-housing is also less expensive than other homeless interventions, such as shelter or transitional housing.
It is offered without preconditions, which is crucial since most homeless people have very good reasons as to why they are homeless in the first place — mental health and addiction, for starters.
On any given night last year, an estimated:
- 171,670 people in families, including children, experienced homelessness.
- 396,045 single individuals experienced homelessness.
- 96,141 individuals had chronic patterns of homelessness.
- 37,085 veterans experienced homelessness.
The National Alliance to End Homelessness spends $4 dollars to raise $100 — earning another A+ from Charity Watch.
A worthy cause, to be sure. You can donate here.
I ran into Rudolph a few months ago. He had gotten clean and was working as a dishwasher at a local soup shop — not far from where we had our meal. I’m not at all trying to pat myself on the back here, but he told me that just the act of taking him to lunch that day made him reexamine his situation. I got him in touch with a pro-bono lawyer who got his marijuana charge expunged. Rudolph was free to apply for jobs without the burden of a drug charge.
He ran up to me and greeted me by name. I felt like I was running into an old friend.
I noticed that he was walking tall that day, feeling confident, and was nothing like the man I had met years before. Sometimes all it takes is a simple act of kindness to bring out the best in all of us.
So do what you can this Christmas. If you’re doing well, pass that along to those who really need it. If you aren’t, then don’t feel ashamed to ask for help.
In a year like this, we all need help. Have a blessed holiday season.
The Profit Sector
Follow me on Twitter @mengeled.
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