Dubbed “Toxic Charity” by Some, It’s Really Helping Those Who Can’t Help Themselves.

By Jeremy Reynalds, Ph.D.

Founder and CEO

Joy Junction Inc.

toxic-faithTragically, a bumper sticker “theology” with a Darwinian survival of the fittest twist has caught on among some of those who help the hungry and homeless.

A Ventura newspaper succinctly summed up what its adherents believe. That the giving of food, showers, clothing and other no-strings “handouts” enable a homeless person to remain in that situation.

Opponents of this pernicious philosophy believe that without those basic necessities of life, a person doesn’t have the ability to change their life.

Joy Junction falls into the latter group. Controversial author Robert Lupton, best known for his 2012 book “Toxic Charity,” is a fervent advocate for the former. toxic-charity

He believes that it’s dangerous to give “freebies” to people without requiring anything in return.

I have an issue with Lupton’s philosophy and its bias toward providers with what he calls (in a recent Association of Gospel Rescue Missions publication) “adventuresome spirits and entrepreneurial instincts,” along with a dab of “return on investment” and “measurable outcomes” thrown in for good measure.

Firstly, missions, grant writers and urban charities need to be telling foundations and others, that helping hungry, distressed human beings should not be dumbed down to “returns on investment,” and “measurable outcomes.”

Funding sources should be aware that missions (both gospel and secular) have a responsibility to help provide life sustaining food, shelter and other essentials whether or not there is a measurable outcome. We are dealing with human beings, not units of commodities for sale.

Think about Joy Junction’s mobile feeding unit, which we call The Lifeline of Hope. While considering it necessary to provide life’s essentials-both to those living on the streets or others living on a day to day basis in often squalid motels-we also believe it is an excellent way to build relationships of trust between clients and us.

When these individuals are ready to enter recovery, we hope they will turn to us, with whom they have an already established relationship. And if they don’t? We have still kept them alive for another day, and hopefully at some point they will have an opportunity to feel the love of Jesus penetrate their hearts.

If we stop feeding (or add Luptonesque requirements unworkable for those whom we help), what will be the end result?

I asked Lupton by email, “Are you happy (or willing) to have homeless men and women literally die in the streets of your city because they refuse to or can’t abide by your dictates?”

He responded that after 46 years of working with the poor, “I no longer view myself as the savior of dying people.”

Lupton continued, “I see very broken people as created in God’s image with gifts, talents and abilities. No one is so poor or broken that they have nothing to contribute. To see them as helpless objects of pity is to demean them.”

He added, “I believe that it is the responsibility of stewards of resources to set up systems of exchange in which everyone has the opportunity to contribute. Everyone has an innate desire to be useful. One way giving communicates that the recipient has nothing of value to offer. Such ‘kindness’ is ultimately hurtful.”

His philosophy sounds good in a TV sound bite or bumper sticker sort of way, but its logical extension is what I just described.

Luptons’s advocacy of personal responsibility is a good one for those who are capable of being responsible. But what about those who can’t and who judges a person’s responsibility level? How about the guy suffering from PTSD, bipolar, schizophrenia, depression, and (perhaps) undiagnosed hurts going back years? I don’t want to take on the role of the Holy Spirit. Do you?

He also forgets what can lead to addiction. An example would be of a woman sexually abused by her father. She tries to suppress the pain, but is unable to do so. She takes a few drinks to “forget,” and ends up craving more. However, the very substance that gave her temporary relief now becomes her master.

In a more lucid moment, she becomes hungry and runs into Lupton devotees, and is told to be “responsible,” and that the food truck or group upon which she had relied has stopped helping because of a new found adherence to Lupton’s thinking.

Another example could be of a man who suffers daily flashbacks from being in past wars. He takes one or two “hits” to get temporary relief, and soon becomes addicted. It was his “choice” to take the first hit, but not to become addicted.

Living in alleyways and behind dumpsters, he grabs an occasional meal from a church group. He relishes the friendly words and food, but is not yet ready (able) to enter rehab. While he has had passing thoughts about recovery, a local detox center is not an option for him, as it demands he be warrant free. He was ticketed a while back for aggressive panhandling, but never showed up in court.

It’s the combination of the “fixes,” whenever he can get them, the food and friendly conversation with the people who give the meals, that keep him going.

One day, the group doesn’t show up for one of their regular stops. The next time, they also fail to come around. He hears through another homeless guy, that they are no longer coming.

After reading Lupton’s thoughts, church leadership has assessed all the food stops they make, and decided that they are going to go down another path, as what they have been doing doesn’t have a “measurable outcome,” and it isn’t a good “return on investment.”

His heart sinking, the man panhandles for a few dollars, gets a bad fix and dies.

Neither the man or the woman I’ve described (who are composites of many people I’ve seen over the years), are capable at this point in their lives of being societally responsible. We need to take them where they’re at, and work from there.

I agree with sharing Christ and helping people get back on their feet. I have spent the last 34 plus years doing so in New Mexico. We also have a vibrant faith based program based on the Tyndale House Life Recovery Bible for those who are ready to get back on their feet. It requires personal responsibility and a nine month commitment.

However, Lupton’s antagonism towards groups who offer a meal and other assistance without requirements is misplaced. He fails to realize that some people will never get back on their feet (for a variety of reasons), and there are also a number of individuals who will take baby steps toward recovery if we are patient with them.

If we place requirements for service on everyone (as he suggests), what do we do with those who don’t comply? Lupton’s philosophy fails to answer that. That’s why I call it “bumper sticker” theology.

He reminds me of author George Grant.

In his book “In the Shadow of Plenty,” Grant wrote “There is a clear distinction then between the oppressed and the sluggardly. The oppressed would work only if they could. The sluggardly could work, if only they would.”

Grant continued by saying that subsidizing “sluggards” is the same as subsidizing evil.

While the book is almost 30 years old, this sort of thinking continues in books like Lupton’s “Toxic Charity.”

One reviewer of his book writes, “Lupton moves uncritically between uplifting the capacity and creativity of the poor and degrading them as lazy and dishonest. ‘Most (panhandlers) are scammers,’ he states (45). Most poor people in the United States ‘assume that their subsistence is guaranteed’ and so lack any kind of work ethic, he claims.” (121).

The reviewer continues, “ I won’t dignify his words with the verb ‘argues,’ because Lupton doesn’t argue his points; he simply states them. I would be concerned that statements like this, when coupled with his criticisms of charity, would motivate more people to avoid service work in the first place than to engage in the community development he suggests.”

I wondered what our Joy Junction guests thought of Lupton’s ideas, so we asked a few of them this question.

“During the days of your active addiction, and perhaps living on the streets, did you rely on any meal site/free food service? If so, what would you have done if the service had suddenly stopped because organizers felt there was no ‘return on investment’ for what they were doing?”

One woman, homeless for three months and addicted to meth, said she doesn’t know what she would have done without the free services.

“I probably would have started panhandling on the street corner, or walking into a grocery store and helping myself.”

Another woman said while addicted if there had been no one to help her, she would probably have starved because she had nowhere else to go.

Someone else said she might have raided restaurant dumpsters after they were closed for the night.

A couple said they relied on us and other area agencies for help, and don’t know what they would have done without the assistance they received.

They surmised, “We know how to fish at the Rio Grande River and rely on nature … We would probably have resorted to selling drugs, or committing some type of crime to get money.”

One guest who also relied on us and other area agencies for help, said without that assistance, he most likely would have ended up in jail or a rehab, and “not drug free like I am now.”

Another guest said, “If the organizations are expecting a return on investments, then they are probably doing it for the wrong reasons. Jesus said, ‘As you have done unto the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me.’”

I couldn’t have put it better.