I went into volunteering with my eyes wide open, yet I hadn’t considered the ethical quandaries I might face in my positions. On Monday at Canadian Blood Services, I was tested. As I share this story, I expect some of you may disagree with my thought process or my actions. If so, I trust you will tell me.
I’d been hoping that my International Happiness Day would not include Sadness, and it didn’t until I was almost finished my Canadian Blood Services shift. Then, a homeless person wandered in the clinic back door, by our little free restaurant. (I assumed homelessness based on her dishevelled appearance and soiled clothing.) She walked toward the nursing station and was greeted by the head nurse.
Then she returned to the restaurant with snacks the nurse had given her, stopping to request a bowl of soup. She sat down only briefly before asking me to put the remainder in a cup to go. I refused. Because the soup is hot, no one leaves the clinic with it.
The woman was angry with me for saying no, and after trying to coerce me into changing my mind, she returned to her table to finish eating. I trust she was genuinely hungry, and I knew she had cookies and juice for the road as well. I had to leave while she was still eating, so I don’t know how the story ended.
You may wonder, based on this incident, whether I care about homeless people and I can assure you I do. I know that mental illness and addiction plague the homeless community, and that those who do not suffer these ills are on the streets because of other unfortunate circumstances such as unemployment or relationship breakdown. Homelessness is a serious problem in Calgary as in any major metropolis.
I treat homeless people respectfully because they are human beings in unfortunate situations. But if I see a person begging on the street, I do not give money because I don’t think my buck or two helps. I also know there are social-service agencies offering food and lodging to people in need. I believe that donating to these agencies addresses homelessness more effectively than giving randomly to individuals.
I normally lavish praise and food on everyone who comes to the clinic. Some have been deemed unable to donate while others are there in support of a friend or loved one. This woman did not come in to donate, and the resources are not designated for her. It’s as simple as that, but it’s never simple. It’s just a bowl of soup, but it’s not.
What if she returns regularly in search of a free meal? Say she brings a group of her friends with her next time. What then? By meeting her immediate needs that day, am I potentially creating a problem down the road?
Thankfully, the head nurse witnessed our interchange and came over to lend a hand. She kindly supported me for how I had handled myself. She also provided some guidelines were I to run into a similar situation again.
Was I really thinking I could park my ethics at the volunteer door? Not possible. But some of these situations are harder to handle than others. What would you have done?