“The Homeless”

Submission to Nick Kristof’s Win-A-Trip Contest

“When I was little, I wanted to make documentaries about the homeless,” I began, sharing with the TED audience the origins of my passion for helping others. Growing up in Los Angeles, I was accustomed to seeing homeless people sleeping under freeway underpasses or collecting bottles for the 5 cent return. They were, by the language we used, “the homeless,” street urchins, creatures irrelevant to our daily affairs.

One day when my family and I were leaving the library, a homeless man approached us, wearing a bedraggled flannel and cone around his neck. He wanted to share some news, he boasted, and told his audience – paralyzed, for we had never conversed with “the homeless” – of his successes: his new dog and job, supportive girlfriend, and their soon-to-be apartment.

He, too, seeks companionship and comfort?

How can this “other” be so like me and my friends?

I realized with embarrassing clarity that he was not a homeless man, but a man who happened not to have a home, in the same way that my identity was not a homeful girl.

My world view shifted. The beggar on the side of the road was now a man with few alternatives; the tramp, a woman taking advantage of what little she had. I became interested in documenting their stories because of my intuition about the “identifiable victim effect”: our better ability to empathize with people than with statistics.

“I just couldn’t imagine my life without a snuggly bed and a refrigerator full of food to go back to,” I continued. With my childhood limited world view the plights of the homeless, contrasting my comfortable upbringing, became the circumstances of my fixation, the sole problem I needed to address. But as I grew more aware, each way I turned I found my empathy tugged in another direction. I befriended the bullied, entertained the elderly, campaigned for the cancer-ridden… and exhausted myself and my resources with little to show for it.

I was a dramatic example of a problem many of us face: chaotic compassion torn between an overwhelming number of charitable pleas. We cope by fixating on the problems about which we are most aware, using this availability heuristic to decide which causes are the most pressing. While it is a practical way of choosing where to focus our efforts, it is unfortunately insufficient, for media coverage and personal experience pick up on newsworthy and relatable issues rather than prioritizing the most dire and tractable ones. With problems outstripping our resources with which to tackle them, we simply cannot afford to act haphazardly. We must partake in cause triage, putting our efforts where they can do the most good – in your words, “do[ing] better if we put our hearts and minds to it.”

Thus was the beginning of my affiliation with the effective altruism movement, a community that strives to maximize its positive impact and encourage others to do the same. From the moment I encountered the concept was hooked. I jog to the Global Prosperity Wonkcast, stay up late pouring over findings on microfinance, and bite my nails awaiting the recommendations of the Copenhagen Consensus. I started attending conferences in San Francisco and Oxford, interning with Academics Stand Against Poverty and Giving What We Can, and telling anyone and everyone how fulfilling impact-evaluated work can be. Finally my impact matched my caring by turning my good intentions into satisfying outcomes. While I find the research inherently exciting, it is the empathy, the ability to think of the people I’ve helped, that keeps me volunteering past the internships or organizing events late into the night.

This is why I want to travel with you. I – an activist by occupation, a writer by avocation – want to write as a vehicle to convey the stories of others, a vehicle to orient efforts for change. I want to extend people’s enthusiasm for helping Batkid through Make-A-Wish to Rokia through Save the Children. Such is the critical role of the journalist, with great power to influence and therefore great responsibility to do so in a way that does the most for those in need. Let us work together to share the stories of people around the world.

Photo from http://www.nancyjundi.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/los-angeles-homeless.jpg