From the Editor

Drescher: Churches trying to help the poor might be more complicated than you think

jdrescher@newsobserver.comNovember 22, 2013 

Is a biscuit the answer?

That succinct question was posed in a recent News & Observer story about feeding hungry people on weekends at a downtown Raleigh park. A group has organized local churches for several years to provide food on weekends at Moore Square, on the east side of downtown. Other groups and tax-supported organizations focus on weekday needs.

In August, Raleigh police, without advance notice, told leaders of Love Wins Ministries that officers would enforce a city ordinance banning distribution of food in Raleigh parks without a permit. (A permit costs $350 with a $500 deposit.) That brought dozens of speakers to a City Council committee meeting to complain. The council agreed to let Love Wins distribute food at Moore Square until another solution could be found.

Questions of the moment

Our initial coverage focused on who ordered the change in city practice, why it was ordered and whether the Moore Square area, which increasingly is attracting interest from developers, was the best place to give food to poor people. Those were the questions of the moment, and we did our best to give readers the answers.

But a Sept. 1 article raised a different question: Is handing out food the best way to help the poor? Reporter Martha Quillin wrote: “Some social workers believe that handouts are counter-productive and that those who are struggling, especially the chronically homeless, should be encouraged to work through social-service organizations designed to help them get on their feet.”

Bob Lupton, who has lived and worked with lower-income people in central Atlanta for 42 years, believes food handouts are destructive. Lupton is founder and president of FCS (Focused Community Strategies) Urban Ministries and author of the 2011 book, “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (And How to Reverse It).”

Lupton, 70, is a former businessman who sold his home in the Atlanta suburbs in the 1970s, moved to a troubled central-city neighborhood and worked to turn it around. He’s done that kind of work ever since. He led a workshop in Raleigh in 2006 called “Gentrification with Justice.”

Good intentions

Compassion and good intentions aren’t enough, Lupton says. Those good intentions, if not properly executed, can build dependency and sap the spirit of the poor. His provocative book includes this key sentence: “When we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them.”

Lupton says food handouts are an emergency response to a chronic need. “That’s the wrong response,” he told me this week. “A chronic need demands a development response and not an emergency response.” He said people who receive food should be required to do something in exchange for it – help prepare food, clean up or some other chore.

Lupton also said it’s important to develop long-term relationships with the poor and work to help them become self-sustaining. There are groups in Raleigh that have good track records in helping people find employment and housing. Among them is StepUp Ministry, which offers job and life-skills training to low-income, homeless and jobless people.

A City Council committee likely will vote next week to move the weekend food handouts to a city-owned spot downtown. That could solve for now the question of where food can be distributed. But the larger question remains about the best way to help the poor.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com; Twitter: @john_drescher

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