How Do People Choose When To Help?

For the last couple of Springs, along with the air of impending good weather came an earth of red foxes skulking around the boardwalk not far from the Leuty lifeguard station. It was a time and scene of joy and beauty, respectively.

To protect the vulnerable family hiding in plain sight, the City put up fencing and signage, and citizens willingly and respectfully put up with rural life in the urban setting. There were even shifts of volunteers who educated and guided nature lovers, fitness enthusiasts, and enquiring minds around the pack.



A little further east, an elder homeless man took up shelter surrounded by the thick brush and trees of Tommy Thompson Park. Like the fox family, he did his best to protect himself by avoiding the onslaught of people out for exercise, fresh air and a change of scenery. Thousands of people use the spit every day in good weather; it offers a unique perspective of downtown.

If you’ve ever taken in Toronto’s urban park, you may have noticed the meagre belongings of someone who is homeless. You may have also noticed how exposed and vulnerable they are. There is no protection and no one is educating passersby on their presence and the issue of poverty and homelessness. Instead, as often is the case, authorities are alerted and the innocent outlier is rapidly removed from the area like they are a threat.

It is hard to get over the disparity – a wild fox is treated more humanely than a homeless human. It raises the question, how do people decide when to help?

Another time of late, in the same east-end neighbourhood, a coyote was going house-to-house looking for sustenance. People were alerted. While some took extra care to watch over their pets, others took to feeding the coyote in defiance of city bylaws. At the same time, on Queen Street people avoided eye contact with and blindly walked past a hungry homeless man.

This is not about man versus animal. It’s about looking at similar situations – being vulnerable and hungry – and trying to understand what motivates one act of kindness but not another. What triggers acts of charity? The better question might be what causes people to quit being kind?

For decades, understanding human nature has been one of the core pursuits of cognitive science, the results of which have been extensive laboratory and survey research. According to a review of the concept of altruism published in the Annual Review of Sociology, acting with the goal of benefiting others does exist within the basic makeup of the human psyche.

However, there are common obstacles when it comes to demonstrating kindness and altruism including distraction, fear and judgement.

Jonathan Fisher, a Charlotte, NC MD, suggests we often get lost in our own world, distracted by calendars, “to do” lists, devices and countless other forces competing for our attention. “We can get so busy doing,” he says, “that we forget how we wish to be.”

Dr. Fisher believes, “It’s easy for the mind to default to defensive and self-protective instincts. We tend to err on the side of worry and fear.” Attuned to potential social threats, our tendency towards separation or even unkindness towards others – especially strangers – becomes the norm.

We all have it in us to behave either way depending on any number of factors. What this means, in practice, is that people can be encouraged to act one way or the other. Ideally, in the widespread acceptance of the moral responsibility for those who are less fortunate, such as people in poverty.

Helping others feels good, and it’s good for you.

The BBC reports that Michael Norton of Harvard Business School has convincing evidence that people who spend a bigger proportion of their income on others tend to be far happier, in the long run, than those spending it on themselves.

“This is not just the result of the comfortable Western lifestyle,” the BBC article from 2015 states. “Norton has tested the concept with data from more than 130 countries, from the US to Uganda. Across all countries – rich or poor, and in every continent – people who gave more tended to be happier people.”

The article continues, “Taking time to help others may even protect you from disease. Over a 30-year study, women who volunteered for a charity were 16 percent less likely to suffer a major illness during that period – perhaps because it lowers stress levels, which may also, in turn, boost the immune system.”

What about the impact on the wellbeing of those we help? Or on those we choose to ignore?

Ask any elder homeless man in Toronto and most, if not all, will tell you that they have experienced the best and worst of human-kind. More often than not, it’s the latter and so much so that they feel robbed of their sense of belonging and community.

Al, a client of Haven Toronto, a downtown drop-in centre, became so accustomed to being ignored and isolated – indicative of being homeless – that when he joined the drop-in centre he was surprised to be, as he puts it, “greeted like a human being.”

“I feel like I belong somewhere,’ Al says in reference to Haven Toronto adding, “It’s like family.”

For almost 90 years, Haven Toronto has been providing a welcoming and safe space where homeless men are treated with respect, afforded their dignity, and given hope. The drop-in centre serves thousands of people from over 60 countries.

“It’s a great place to go,” Al says. “There’s nothing else like it.”

The centre is the only one of its kind in Canada dedicated to the unique needs of elder homeless men. Haven Toronto is open every day all year, including major holidays, and provides clients with healthy meals in a social setting plus access to nurses, counsellors and support care workers.


There are over 10 thousand people who are homeless on any given night in Toronto. Over 75 percent are male. Many are clients of Haven Toronto.

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