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Shelter operator’s tough question: Can charity hurt?

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, at 10:47 p.m.
  • Updated Tuesday, April 1, 2014, at 11:42 a.m.

The Union Rescue Mission in Wichita has given beds and meals to homeless men for 63 years.

It does so because Jesus demanded repeatedly that his followers help the poor. But in recent weeks, Denny Bender, the faith-based group’s executive director, has posed a question: Can charity hurt people?

He has not decided the answer yet.

“The Mission will always help these men,” he said.

“But are we enabling their behaviors, by taking away their dignity, by making them so comfortable they have no reason to improve themselves?”

When Bender first posed the question to himself, Calvin Cartwright and other men came to mind.

Cartwright is a tall, lanky Union Rescue Mission regular. He speaks with polished diction. He has a leather-tanned face; long, lank strands of hair hang down from a tanned, balding head, and only one brown tooth is still attached in his upper jaw.

Cartwright, 68, is a legend among the homeless, Bender said. He has a pronounced problem with authority. And by Cartwright’s own account, he has slept and eaten at the mission, now located at 2800 N. Hillside, for more than 30 years.

For free.

Cartwright, courteous and approachable, rolled his eyes when asked whether charity hurts.

“What a bunch of crap,” he said. “I might have to find someplace else to go.”

For close to 40 years now, people have told him to move along, go away, disappear, he said. He has dug meals out of trash bins and slept on streets, in freezing vacant condemned houses and in hidey-holes of underbrush where he hopes no one can find him.

He has done none of those things lately because he has slept at the mission. But he will not let anyone judge or control him, he said.

“The street is dangerous,” he said. “There’s always somebody you got to be careful around.

“But I’m still alive at age 68 instead of dead at 51 like I should have been. Because I know my way around.”

‘Compassion is critical’

Conservative politicians in both Topeka and Washington, D.C., have questioned repeatedly whether food stamps and other charitable programs make poverty bigger by creating a sense of entitlement.

Some of those politicians have suggested instead that able-bodied people need incentives to work, that they need motivations to get jobs.

Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, has spent decades working with street people. She believes demands should be made of many of them.

“But the problem is, about 25 percent are incapable of working,” she said, “and another 25 percent to 50 percent are probably capable of working, if they get good mental health assessments, and if they get proper services – and if they get proper medications. And take them.

“Good luck with that,” she added.

Bender said he saw her point. But he thinks that the question “Can charity hurt?” should be asked.

It’s a question that Jan Haberly, the executive director of the Lord’s Diner, says she has asked herself daily – and with misgivings – even though the Lord’s Diner has won accolades for feeding hundreds of poor people every night in downtown Wichita since 2002. It added a second diner in the Planeview area in 2011.

The Lord’s Diner feeds children, elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless and working people every night, no questions asked. It won’t stop doing that, she said.

But she has pondered the same question and found no easy answer. She’s sure that most people she feeds don’t have any other way to eat. She’s also sure that poverty is such a tough and lonely burden that some of her clients eat there to stave off loneliness as well as hunger.

She thinks that a small minority of her diners take advantage. But how does a Christian organization, or any organization, go about separating those from the truly needy? She doesn’t know.

“When we started sending the food truck up to 25th and Arkansas, we noticed a generational thing,” Haberly said of a new outreach program that began September. “The older people, when they came for the food, obviously felt bad, some of them, and some handed us a dollar, perhaps feeling better that they’d given something in return.

“But the younger people don’t feel that way.”

Whether charity can be toxic is a question that Habitat for Humanity in Wichita asked itself many years ago when it insisted, from the time of its founding here, that it would always make poor people give something substantial in return for receiving a newly built home.

A family has to invest 250 to 400 “sweat equity” hours of work to earn the house, said executive director Ann Fox. Officials also ask them to take a 40-hour course in which Habitat teaches them how to manage their money.

Fox said that charities like hers have learned much from poor people that gets ignored by some politicians, who she said sometimes generalize about poor people getting jobs.

“People tend to put people with problems into categories, and talk about ‘the poor,’ ” she said. “Forget the categories: People in poverty are all unique.”

The Lord’s Diner, in giving away charity, doesn’t do things the way Habitat does, Fox said. But she’s glad the Lord’s Diner and the Kansas Food Bank are out there.

“In a world with so many poor people, charities like the diner show that there is still a place in the world for compassion,” she said. “Compassion is critical.

“Beyond that, I don’t know of anyone who ever felt motivated by being judged.”

Raising questions

Bender said the Union Rescue Mission will never turn its back on the men it takes in, though many are able-bodied and many are sinners. Many are parolees just released from the Kansas Department of Corrections who literally have no other place to go, Bender said.

Some of the men drink or use drugs. Cartwright said he prefers 24-ounce bottles of Natural Ice malt liquor – nearly 6 percent alcohol, and “a dollar and seven cents apiece” – when he can get it. And “sometimes I’ll take a hit of crack, if it is offered. I never buy it.”

At the beginning of every month, when Social Security checks arrive, many regular clients disappear, Bender said. They reappear at the Union Rescue Mission after they’ve spent Social Security money while sharing motel rooms and drinking.

All Bender has done so far, he said, is raise questions with his board and staff. Are there ideas more useful than giving away beds? Perhaps deadlines, small user fees, and maybe some sort of work-for-charity exchange? Something that provides men more dignity and structure?

They’ve reached no decisions, he said. He worries that changes might cause cruelties.

“The last thing we want to do is create more difficult straits than what these men already face,” he said. “There are those who wouldn’t be able to do much – those who have disabilities and other deficiencies.

“All we are doing is talking about what things we might modify to be more helpful, and to provide more of an exit plan from homelessness.”

‘Toxic Charity’

What prompted his soul searching, in part, Bender said, is what he learned from Robert Lupton, a longtime leader of charities in Atlanta, and James Whitford, a charity leader from Joplin, Mo.

Whitford, executive director of Watered Gardens Gospel Rescue Mission and True Charity Initiative in Joplin, just helped organize an expansion of the shelter he helps run.

He is convinced that many church charities, as well as government food stamp programs, deepen poverty by creating dependency. He said he is talking extensively to community, church and political leaders in Joplin. He wants to wean poor people off food stamps and train and encourage people to better take care of their needs.

In his own programs, he said, they set achievable goals, including where people sometimes do something as simple as arts and crafts work, creating bracelets to earn food or shelter. The point is never to hurt or judge people, or to set goals beyond their reach, but to find a way for people to earn what they get.

The goal: dignity, from providing for themselves.

“The goal should not necessarily be that the person get a job because sometimes that’s just too far ahead of what a person can do,” Whitford said.

He described how, with one man, he offered to give him help only if the man would clean his eyeglasses regularly. That might not sound like much, Whitford said, but it could be a first step for people who are far from ready to apply for jobs.

Lupton, the founder and president of FCS Urban Ministries in Atlanta, has developed entire mixed-income subdivisions, started businesses for people and created housing. Decades ago, he moved himself and his family into the inner city, confronting poverty directly.

His 2011 book “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It)” – which Bender has read – outlines what Lupton learned. Lupton said that “Toxic Charity” describes “the downside of how many of us do charity work in this country.”

“The rescue mission folk have never charged for beds and food, in part because their theology says that grace is free,” he said.

“But that model, though it sounds noble and compassionate, communicates to the person being helped that you have nothing of value to give us that we value in return. It’s a subtle put-down.”

Elderly people and children who can’t work need “emergency charity.” But that kind of charity never cures root causes of poverty, he said. Charity can evolve into entitlement programs.

What the poor need more, he said, are programs like co-ops, where people contribute modest sums to their own upkeep, or exchanges, where they trade work or effort for help.

Asking for more

The Union Rescue Mission takes in 130 to 140 men a night. They get a meal and a chapel service.

By day, the Union Rescue Mission also teaches a free 12-month recovery and training program to men like Patrik Sachen, 45. Sachen said his alcoholic blackouts and drug abuse derailed six-figure salaries he once earned and wrecked a career he hopes to one day resume as a manager for Ecowater Systems.

He thought the Union Rescue Mission should ask more of the men.

“But don’t expect anything miraculous, “ he said.

When asked whether charity creates dependency, Sachen grinned. He said he once worked for one of Georgia conservative Newt Gingrich’s political campaigns.

“The liberals want to give people free money so they can get the vote,” he said. When he was both drunk and homeless, it seemed to him that the homeless ate well, “and it was liberating. You didn’t have to worry about anything.”

His own path

Cartwright’s unusually vivid blue eyes look warily at people from sockets set deep in a face that long ago turned a mottled brown.

He said he earned that tan by walking everywhere, by refusing to ride the buses the Union Rescue Mission charters to bring those 130 to 140 men a night from downtown to 2800 N. Hillside.

Some of those men are dangerous, but it’s also true, he said, “that I just don’t get along well with others.” So instead of riding the bus, he walks the roughly 12-mile round trip to the Union Rescue Mission five days a week.

He could ride that bus, he said. He could try to find jobs.

He could do what other people say, he said. But instead, he walks his own path.

“The world is full of people who want to tell you what to do and control you,’’ he said.

People have judged him, he said. But he in turn has watched the rest of us for 68 years. He concluded long ago that most of us live under the control of others.

Not him, he said.

“Never.”

He sat quietly for several moments, thinking.

“Maybe a job bank,” he said.

“Maybe if they had a job bank here, they could maybe help guys get jobs.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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