01/09/2014 01:59 pm ET Updated Mar 11, 2014

The Bonds and Bounds of Caring

An Arctic chill hangs over Bethesda, Maryland, as I type this. I'm sitting at my desk at home; the heat is on but I've thrown a purple blanket over my lap against the cold. I don't usually go into our offices on Fridays, but earlier today, a project needing my attention brought me into our homeless Drop-In Center. I saw the usual crowd of men sitting in our day center, swapping stories, waiting for services or just enjoying a respite from the frigid air. Around lunchtime, I finished my work, waved goodbye and dashed through the cold to the warmth of my car.

During that dash-to-certain-warmth was when I started to think about two questions, with which I have tussled for years.

Who, exactly, is my brother? Am I, in fact, his keeper?

Now, I know that in the Bible, Cain murders his brother Abel, and it is in response to God's query, "Where is thy brother?" that Cain -- knowing full well where Abel is -- evasively answers, "Well, I don't know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

Cain sounds pretty sarcastic to me, but the power of his question lingers; out of context, it's a tremendous touchstone for self-inquiry. What are the nature and extent of my responsibilities to everyone else, to anyone else? What defines a brother? What constitutes a keeper? Are brothers and keepers based on the unspoken social contracts we have with each other? Or is it something more conscious than that? Where do the borders lie between whom and how we should help?

My answers shift. But it struck me today that I've chosen a career -- working with a homeless outreach/eviction prevention group -- in which I ask myself those questions every single day. Being brotherly in a professional setting creates another wrinkle entirely.

So. First. Who is my "brother"? By this point in my life, I have my answer: everyone is. Anyone is. Really. Over time, I expanded my "brother" from my actual family to include my physical neighbors, then various communities, and ultimately, heck, the whole darned planet. I see no need to be stingy with this category: If we cross paths, you need help, and I can help you, I'm in.

The next question is, for me, tougher. How do you "keep" the people on your path? What kind of help does a "keeper" give? In working with desperately medically vulnerable people, the stakes at risk in the answer to that are dangerously high.

Tonight, I know that the weather forecast is for single-digit temperatures. I know that few of our clients will go to shelters (I'll post about why, another time). I know that, despite our humanitarian mission, Bethesda Cares must function as an operation with regular hours, which includes a closing-time. I know that our staff tries to reduce harm to our clients in every way we can: when we close for the night, we offer clients blankets, hats, gloves, hand warmers and snacks. We are neither equipped to let them stay overnight nor would we ever move in that direction: we work to get unsheltered clients into permanent supportive housing, not into temporary shelters. So at the end of our day, our staff goes home, and our clients park benches and Metro stops.

I hate that.

Yet there is another crucial piece of this equation: where do our clients' responsibilities for their own well-being fit in? Some are quite capable of making rational choices; all are fully grown adults. What if they really are choosing to face the cold over an emergency shelter? What is in their best interests? What if they don't want what I, a self-appointed keeper, think they should have?

I am certain that Bethesda Cares' clients are my brothers. But I am trying to accept that I cannot "keep" them in what would seem to me the most vital of all ways: I can't ensure that they will be warm enough, literally, to stay alive tonight. We can offer services, and the county can offer emergency shelters, but we cannot force people to accept them.

What we can do, as keepers, is first to listen to our clients, to see them for who they are. Next is to ask if they want to be helped; then, and only then, ask what that help should look like to them.

And that's when the keeping really begins; then they can tell me whether I am, in fact, a "keeper."