Homelessness, Recommended books & reviews

Charity Detox: the difference between crisis situations and chronic problems

Two months ago, I read US activist Robert Lupton’s book Toxic Charity: how churches and charities harm those they help.

I have just finished his follow up book Charity Detox: What charity would look like if we cared about results. Lupton acknowledges the controversy stirred by his previous book but his views are forged by 4 decades of anti-poverty work and in Charity Detox he doubles-down on this core message:

‘The hard reality is that it takes more than compassionate hearts and generous gifts to elevate people in need out of poverty…The fact is that we cannot serve people out of poverty, no matter how much we may want to.’


He describes a situation in Knoxville, Tennessee under an flyover where hundreds of people affected by homelessness and addictions gather. It is nicknamed “compassion central” because its where ‘the city’s most destitute meet the suburbs’ most generous.’

‘The charity convoys of kind-hearted church folks that pull up daily under the viaduct offer unconditional compassion to willing recipients who gladly take whatever is being handed out. The grace that is extended has no strings attached. No distinction is made between the mentally ill and the predators who prey upon them…Dependencies that are fostered or destructive lifestyles that are enabled are not the concern of these purveyors of love…

Problematic theology

These kinds of give-aways appear inclusive and generous, but it is precisely the kind of work that Lupton criticises. This is because of how ineffective it is in actually helping people.  

And its not just a matter of naïve practice, the underlying assumptions, and theology, is problematic:

‘Their grace is free – free from obligation, free from accountability, free from any expectation of reciprocity. It is pure.’

Grace detached from obligation, accountability and reciprocity easily becomes cheap grace. This form of grace feeds the worst in human impulses rather than the best and end up deepening the problems people face. The impact is toxic rather than transformative.

Crisis or chronic?

A helpful insight that Lupton shares is the difference between crisis problems and chronic issues.  

‘When a famine sweeps Sub-Saharan Africa, starvation is a life-and-death crisis. But in urban America, hunger is a chronic issue, not a crisis’

The distinction is important because it informs the response that churches and charities give:

‘Much of the giving in America is misplaced. We respond generously to stories of people in crisis, but in fact most our charity goes to people who face predictable, solvable problems of chronic poverty. An emergency response to chronic need is at best counterproductive and, over time, is actually harmful.’

Different approaches needed

This problem is seen time and again in emergency help provided by churches and community groups aimed at ‘helping the homeless’. Large numbers of people will gather for soup runs or attend drop-in centres, but often a very low ratio are actually sleeping rough. 

Rather than the crisis of sleeping outdoors, most people coming to such provision have chronic problems relating to poverty, mental health, addiction and loneliness. Addressing these issues requires different approaches from giving hand-outs:

‘And yet, charities and churches continue to use crisis-intervention strategies that foster dependence…they continue to feed a man a fish, when they really need to teach him how to fish.’

Transformed services

Lupton gives examples of charities which have undergone a journey to transform how they operate. Nearby the ‘Compassion-Central’ underpass is the Knoxville Area Rescue Mission (KARM) where the guests are involved in cooking the meals, cleaning and preparing the rooms. Plus, there is counselling and courses which prepare them to re-enter employment. Here, grace is connected to obligation, accountability and reciprocity:

‘KARM guests receive the affirming message that everyone has some God-given capacity to help both self and others. Everyone. It is not unloving to expect people to do their part. Just the opposite. It is cruel to send the message that a person has nothing of worth to offer.’

Good intentions not enough

Generosity and kindness are wonderful qualities but they need to be channelled in the right direction. Good intentions are simply not enough to help address the chronic issues many people are afflicted by. We need to be clear-thinking, hold strong boundaries and offer helps which empowers positive change.

More than ever, I believe that people are not transformed simply by what they are given. Rather, they are transformed by what they contribute to; how they use their skills and strengths to the benefit of themselves and others.

Empowering people to use their skills is what lies at the heart of detoxifying our efforts to help people. We should be grateful for brave voices such as Robert Lupton for articulating these truths with such conviction and compassion.

Buy Charity Detox: what charity would look like if we cared about results by Robert D. Lupton

5 thoughts on “Charity Detox: the difference between crisis situations and chronic problems”

  1. Thanks Jon, thought provoking as ever! Various people across our charity, and in fact Christian charitable work in Bristol, have read his first book. We’ll need to get some copies of the new book circulated!
    I appreciate the distinction between crisis and chronic (another good reason for getting the word ‘crisis’ out of our charity name!). It remains a tough conversation to have at a church/city level however. And one that needs to come from a place of integrity i.e. we are operating out of an appropriate place ourselves.


    1. Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, I think this does work well with your new name! I wonder whether Robert Lupton has come and spoke at an event in the UK – I think there would be a lot of people who would appreciate engaging more with his message. I think agencies likes yours have such a key role in your city – I know how challenging these conversations (and practices) are. Thanks and God bless you in your vital work.


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