As a group of Midcoast municipal employees, public safety personnel and service providers begin an effort to prevent homelessness, they first are tackling how to define that term.

State and federal rules define homelessness as being without a habitable residence. Couch surfers — those who might be sleeping on a couch at the home of relatives or friends — are subsequently not considered homeless.

Then there is the definition of being “needy.” While some administrators use the Maine Department of Health and Human Services general assistance guidelines to help those in their own communities find the food and shelter they need, one town’s aid may end up being far more generous than another town’s. And where one board of selectmen may see funds entrusted to it as a gift to serve those who have no place else to turn, town fathers may not be active enough to seek out those citizens who need a hand to help them over the bumps.

Yet most Midcoast towns do have funds to help those in need. Many of these funds have not been tapped too drastically in the recent past, and in some cases their principal has grown, benefiting from the stock market of the good years.

Charity has always been a gift from those with more than they need to those who have too little. As one participant in last weekend’s Pies on Parade observed, it is through the celebration of our wealth that we gather and distribute funds to the needy. While some might find irony in eating pies to help the hungry (all the proceeds from the event go to Area Interfaith Outreach, which helps stock and operate a food pantry), the money raised will help fill basic needs for a large number of Knox County’s citizens.

In this Great Recession, as the economy sheds jobs, it is getting harder for a number of neighbors to fill their gas tanks, let alone their fuel tanks. Coupons are clipped — or downloaded — and even spending money on a cup of coffee assumes a greater significance. As people relay dollars to Haitian relief agencies, it is important to remember the needs close to home. Those in a position to offer a hand to a neighbor would be best served by putting aside judgments and rethinking the conditions by which we collectively lend a hand.

How our towns define need is an important task, as our global society learns that we are truly interconnected. Just as the failure of a bank in Asia directly affects interest rates here at home, so does the loss of income suffered by one neighbor damage the fabric of a community.

Now is not the time for narrow definitions of need. Towns should remember the money left to them through bequests of citizens who have passed on their generosity to those in need.