Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Charity: a dirty word

It’s a dirty word, charity. In the thick of the Great Depression, one of Australia’s most colourful clerics surveyed the plight of the poor and declared: ‘not charity!’

Bob Hammond knew that destitution was destructive. He had spent years ministering to working class people in the crowded inner suburbs of Sydney - visiting men in their factories, families in their homes, children on the streets. He recognised that poverty had all kinds of causes: the poor weren’t simply to blame for theirmisery. And with unemployment approaching thirty percent and homelessness at crisis levels, he realised there was little point waiting for government to resolve the human catastrophe of the 1930s.

Something had to be done – and fast. But the answer wasn’t charity.

With extraordinary boldness and generosity, Hammond made one of Australia’s most enduring responses to the calamity of the depression. Cashing his own life insurance policy – the equivalent of giving away his superannuation - he purchased a tract of bushland and founded a settlement for homeless families. ‘While charity depreciates the recipient, opportunity enriches,’ he explained.‘These people need a chance, not charity.’

Hammond’s Pioneer Homes Scheme put more than one hundred destitute families back on their feet. It inaugurated the suburb of Hammondville, in south western Sydney, and provided a childhood home to several prominent Australians including country music star George Payne, homebuilder Jim Masterton, and anti-corruption MP John Hatton. For them and hundreds of others, the scheme was life changing: as Payne said, it was ‘probably the luckiest thing and the best thing that anyone’s ever done for my generation.’

Significanty for today’s Australia, the scheme kick-started one of the nation’s largest social service organisations: HammondCare. Outstripping Lifeline, the Smith Family and even the Brotherhood of St Laurence, HammondCare has become a major provider of care to vulnerable people. Over the last eighty years, it has housed the homeless, treated the sick, calmed the disturbed and nursed the aged. It has helped forge solutions to a wide range of needs, pioneering such fields as accommodation for the elderly and care for people with dementia. Now in a close but complex partnership with government, it is a significant contributor to Australia’s ‘mixed economy’ of welfare.

So what about charity?

In some quarters, it still carries overtones of paternalism and dependency. Christian charity is particularly vexed because of the role played by religious groups in the provision of social services, and their receipt of tax-breaks and government subsidies. In the midst of this debate, HammondCare has embraced the language its founder so strenuously resisted. It now claims the label of charity in caring for the needy in ways that support their independence and affirm their intrinsic human dignity.

Though significant issues remain, the proper expression of charity is crucially important to Australia’s future well being.

Read more: Faith in Action: HammondCare (UNSW Press, 2013)

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