After 18 years as executive director of the Central Union Mission, the oldest social service agency in Washington, D.C., I’m still digesting an ugly truth: Helping poor and homeless people doesn’t always bring the rewards you’re anticipating.

In fact, working on behalf of those who need the most help is often accompanied by a sense of frustration and thanklessness. Take heart, however, because these small sacrifices have a big payoff by creating a real and positive impact on those in need.

Running and maintaining a shelter is a costly venture. Shelters depend on donations to survive. These donations come in many forms, from food to money to time.

Getting the right kinds of donations is one of the biggest challenges facing shelters. Donating rice and dry beans to a food pantry seems like an ideal choice, but remember that preparing these items requires cookware, a heating source and plenty of time. What if someone doesn’t have access to a kitchen? What if they are a single mom working two jobs?

A holiday pie may seem like a special treat to donate, but the opposite is often true. Homeless shelters and food pantries receive a lot of expired baked goods — bread, cakes, sweets — all yummy things that are not so healthy. A real treat would be fresh vegetables or fruit.

While it may seem unsentimental or impersonal to contribute money instead of donating food to a shelter, it’s actually very practical. Shelters and pantries have access to food banks that sell them food at a deep discount. A shelter can feed more people with a $10 check than with three pounds of donated ground beef. When, as often happens, the food bank sells out of a necessity, your financial donation can purchase food from a discount grocery store.

Our time and attention are a second way that helping the homeless is costly. Homeless people survive under the radar, so it’s counterintuitive to them to stand up for themselves and seek the help they need. It’s true many are mentally ill or cognitively impaired, but some just lack basic social skills that we take for granted. This is where our time and attention are so valuable.

You can’t get a job without an ID. Replacing a stolen ID, getting to the DMV, ordering a birth certificate, paying for the application and having a mailing address to mail it to may be more than a homeless or poor person can manage on their own. Homeless people also need guides to help them navigate the confusing process of accessing social services such as medical help, veterans’ aid, low-cost housing or food stamps.

It often seems the people who need the most help are the most unpleasant. Their struggle to survive puts social niceties on the back burner — if they ever existed. They may be undereducated, in pain or have an addiction and require a lot of guidance. While living on the streets may seem miserable, it’s familiar to many, and pulling your life back together can be an insurmountable task on one’s own. Even if homeless people are open to getting help, they may appear unappreciative.

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This is a good place where homeless shelters can intervene. The Central Union Mission has experienced social workers and counselors that can guide people through the necessary steps. We also have employment training programs that teach job and interpersonal skills like responsibility, anger management and professional behavior.

To help homeless people where the rubber truly meets the road frequently comes in the form of second chances. With a blank resume or a criminal record, some individuals look hopeless on paper. With a second chance, homeless people can gain professional careers and the ability to take care of themselves and their families.

Our Ready2Succeed workforce development participants learn what it means to be dependable, hardworking employees. For example, Ready2Work employees are cleaning and maintaining the Mount Vernon Triangle Business Improvement District, while Ready2Reycle workers pick up and sort items for re-use. Our Ready2Cook students learn how to bake through our Mission Muffins program or learn how to use their culinary training in professional kitchens. When their training is over, what they need most is a chance to show what they can do.

Truly helping people is hard work. It’s time to stop pretending it’s not. These difficult efforts are the ones that matter. Our small sacrifices will put people back in productive jobs and help make broken families whole again. Knowing our efforts contribute to this makes the sacrifices and hard work worth it in the end. That’s something that does indeed give us an abundance of rewards.

David Treadwell is executive director of Central Union Mission. Thinking of submitting an op-ed to the Washington Examiner? Be sure to read our guidelines on submissions.

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