Toxic charity: How giving can be more hurtful than helpful

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Doing something for someone else may make the giver feel good, but it could actually hurt the other person. That’s the premise of the book Robert Lupton wrote called “Toxic Charity,” and it’s also the reason for changes at several charitable organizations in West Michigan.

Mel Trotter Ministries in Grand Rapids added a toxic charity team after hearing a presentation by Lupton. The team ensures that nothing the shelter does is “toxic,” including serving 500 meals a day, free of charge.

Instead, shelter guests now pay $2 per meal with either cash, benefits they get from the state or vouchers they earn at Mel Trotter.

“What happens is that we start turning people that are living in poverty and just receiving into consumers who feel more valued and dignified. Guests will come up to us now and say thank you, they didn’t use to say (that) when the food was free,” explained Dennis Van Kampen, CEO of Mel Trotter Ministries.

How can charity be toxic?

In his book, Lupton explains that despite how much money Americans spend on charity the outcomes are almost entirely unexamined. He says charity can hurt the people it intends to help by creating dependency and destroying personal initiative. He explained that during his presentation to several charities in West Michigan in 2015 which prompted them to make the changes.

Mel Trotter partners with Degage Ministries on a Christmas store which used to be a free shop where parents could pick out toys and other items to give to their children. It is now an affordable store with low-priced items that give guests choices.

“Before it was primarily moms that came in when the toys were free. They would come in a bit shy and reserved. When we changed to this program, now dads come in too. They weren’t coming in before because I think it was a dignity issue,” Van Kampen said.

Guests of Mel Trotter also use their vouchers or cash to buy toiletries and clothing, which can help them as they apply for jobs and housing. The purpose is to not only give them dignity in having choices and control, but also teaching life skills they will use once they move on from the shelter.

“I’ve always been a person that had people give me a hand, not a handout. I was raised to be part of the solution, not the problem”, Bruce Pruitt described his upbringing in Grand Rapids during a conversation at Mel Trotter, where he is a guest.

Pruitt left home as a teenager to escape a father who he says was an alcoholic, and abusive to his mother. At Mel Trotter Ministries, he doesn’t take handouts, but contributes to the benefits he enjoys. Pruitt hopes to graduate from the program and start his own ministry, taking the skills he’s learning with him.

There was a time when Meagan, another Grand Rapids native, never thought she’d live on her own again, although she also never expected to end up homeless. She grew up in a middle class family where poverty was something no one thought about, because it had never touched their lives.

“I got married young and had babies. I was the typical living in the suburbs, playing outside, blessed with a good family and financially,” said Meagan of her childhood.

Self-medicating her anxiety and depression by drinking is where her life started to fall apart, although the bottom didn’t drop out for Meagan until her children were older and didn’t need her as much.

“I hit a spot where my whole life fell apart, got into legal trouble, and had nowhere to go. I had no money, no job, and no place to go,” Meagan described what ‘rock bottom’ was for her after her family stopped enabling her. That’s how she ended up at Mel Trotter.

“I walked in and I remember they have to go through your bags and stuff and just make sure that everything is safe. I had a book in my bag and the security guard said, ‘I love this author!’ and I was like, oh okay, these people are normal.”

Meagan also says she felt comfortable accepting the hand up, because she was asked to be involved in her own recovery.

“I was honestly embarrassed that I was at this point in my life. I was always taught that you had to work for things, I’m not good at accepting help so it made me feel better that I was contributing,” Meagan said.

Meagan now has a good job, where she was recently promoted and lives in her own studio apartment.

When asked what she thinks people should do if they see someone asking for money on the street — a question she says she gets often, Meagan replied “I’m still conflicted about it. I think just addressing that person as a person. People don’t realize how isolating it is when you’re struggling to survive. You can be anonymous through so much of this and you don’t realize how much of yourself you’re losing, and if you can give that to somebody and just make them feel human, even if it’s just for that one contact a day, it’s so important and it’s such a gift you can give somebody.”