Remembering Louis: On the Limits of Charity and the Need for a Government Safety Net

It took me a while to figure Louis out. Like all of the people, mostly single men, who came to the social service agency where I worked as an employment counselor, he was struggling and looking for help. He was homeless and unemployed. Unlike many of our agency’s program participants, he had no history of substance abuse. He was friendly and cheerful. While his clothes were frayed and in need of a wash, he was well-groomed otherwise. He came in looking for help finding a job, but after a few sessions, I began to wonder if behind his spotty employment history was an undiagnosed mental illness. When he spoke, something was a little…off. He was not obviously delusional, as some of our participants with mental illness were. But his sentences didn’t quite hang together, his stories went in circles instead of a straight line, and I had enough trouble figuring out what he was trying to say that I decided a mental health evaluation was in order.

Thus Louis and I began our regular forays into D.C.’s government-funded social service and mental health systems. I made endless phone calls and filled out paperwork to get him evaluated by psychiatrists. I accompanied him to appointments. After many appointments and false starts, he was diagnosed with a mental illness (I honestly don’t remember which one). That cleared the way for him to apply for SSDI (Social Security Disability) and get regular counseling and medication through the city’s mental health service agency. Eventually, with his SSDI income and a housing subsidy, Louis was able to rent a room in a decent building. It was sparse, but safe, clean, and his. Louis would stop by the office now and then in the years to come, sometimes just to say hello. Sometimes to get a bag of groceries from our food pantry. He would tell people with a grin, “My life is so much better now that Ellen helped me figure out that I’m crazy!”

Louis’s story is an example of the promise and limits of religiously motivated charity, and the promise and limits of a government-funded safety net. My agency, funded by a partnership of Episcopal parishes, was a well-managed, well-intentioned, and often effective attempt to follow Christ’s mandate to care for those on society’s margins—the poor, the sick, the unemployed. While we put no religious requirement on participants—anyone could come to us for help, regardless of their faith or lack thereof—nearly everyone who worked for the organization, paid or volunteer, was motivated in part by their Christian faith.

In Louis’s case, our Christian charity was a vital link connecting him with available government services. Our agency, which emphasized looking at each program participant’s unique situation and figuring out the most effective next steps for him or her to take, allowed me to spend time getting to know Louis in a way that a government bureaucracy does not. Participants like Louis didn’t need to verify income or identity or anything else to receive help from us. They didn’t even have to know exactly what sort of help they most needed—just that they needed help. Once Louis and I determined that assessing his mental health was key to improving his situation, I was able to walk him through the needed steps so he wouldn’t get stuck or lost in the government bureaucracy.

But without that bureaucracy—without government programs, including SSDI, food stamps, and housing subsidies—my ability to help Louis in the long run would have been sorely limited. What good would it have done Louis to get an accurate mental illness diagnosis without also receiving government help designed for people who are unable to work due to mental illness? Without a government safety net in place—an admittedly bureaucratic, sometimes impersonal, not always efficient safety net—Louis would have remained homeless and dependent on well-intentioned but limited charitable sources of food, emergency financial assistance, and other support to get his most basic needs met.

As I wrote yesterday, one of the reasons I vote Democrat is that I see the government as having a vital role in providing essential services to the poor, the sick, and other marginalized folk—the people who were the focus of Jesus’s ministry. Charitable organizations and individual Christians can do much to fulfill Christ’s mandate to provide tangible care to “the least of these.” But for Louis’s sake, I’m glad that my and my agency’s Christian charity weren’t the only resources he could call upon for help in his time of greatest need. Louis needed us to see him, to stand beside him as he did the hard work of diagnosis and treatment, to make sure he didn’t get lost in the “system.” But he also needed that system to provide a constant source of income, housing, and treatment so he could live a simple but dignified life off the streets.

Why Even the Smallest Good Work is Worth Doing
Why Even the Smallest Good Work is Worth Doing
Remembering One of My “Cloud of Witnesses”
Surviving January with Help from the Danes, the Japanese, and Jesus
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • DaveP

    > Louis needed us to see him, to stand beside him as he did the hard work of diagnosis and treatment, to make sure he didn’t get lost in the “system.”

    I used to live on the other side of the system, not “helping” people like Louis, but living in the bushes with people like Louis.

    “One Flew Over the Cookoo’s Nest” was a book about a Veterans Hospital that Ken Kesey worked in. I used to live with the outpatients from that same hospital, both in the bushes and in an apartment building near by.

    They were very good at getting the most out of the system with the least amount of work. For example, whenever one particular guy I lived in the bushes with wanted to go back to the hospital (usually during a prolonged rainy period), he would set fire to someone’s apartment then wait for the police to come pick him up and take him back to the hospital. We called him “Arsonist Jerry”.

    He wasn’t crazy. Like all humans (including yourself), he had figured out the easiest way to get what he wanted out of life.

    Have you considered that while you were “helping” Louis to get what he wanted out of life with the least amount of work, that he was also “helping” you to feel like an important, necessary individual, and maybe even helping to support you if you were getting paid?

    We used to discuss those kinds of quid-pro-quos, while living in the bushes.

    “Arsonist Jerry” figured that in trade for getting to stay in the hospital he was giving the apartment owner a great story to tell for the rest of their life, he was helping to support the insurance industry by showing that sometimes fires occur, he was helping the police earn their salaries, and he was providing employment for lots of healthcare workers.

    “Arsonist Jerry” was a big help to the people who were helping “Arsonist Jerry”.

    • VAinVA

      I will pray for your soul Dave. I am deeply saddened by your lack of compassion and the coldness of your heart. Your comments are filled with anger and judgment. I truly hope that you never lose your job or health insurance or suffer an illness for which you can’t get help.

  • DaveP

    > I will pray for your soul Dave.


    > I am deeply saddened by your lack of compassion and the coldness of your heart.

    No need to be sad on my account. Since I was the only one among my buddies that had a job, I ended up providing the food at the end of the month for the various vets, homeless people, and other misfitst that I lived with. The vets provided the food at the beginning of the month out of their disability checks, when there were vets there. Sometimes we all went dumpster diving for dinner.

    > Your comments are filled with anger and judgment.

    Which comments in particular?

    > I truly hope that you never lose your job

    I don’t have a job, I’m self-employed.

    > or health insurance

    I don’t have health insurance.

    > or suffer an illness for which you can’t get help.

    Any time that I or my family has gotten sick, we’ve had no problem getting health care. All the places we’ve been to put uninsured people on payment plans. So instead of paying insurance companies lots of money before we get sick, we pay less money directly to the health care providers after we get sick.

  • Lois

    Dave, what you don’t see is that your friends who figured the system out and preyed on it – they are psycho/sociopaths. Just because one is brilliant doesn’t mean you aren’t crazy. How can I make that diagnosis? Because we can all get the system to “work” for us. We chose to make our own way. They did things someone “normal” would not do to get what they wanted. I could get the insurance company to repair my house if I……, still knowing this – I chose to take the longer way, the expensive way. Your friends did have psychiatric problems. You pointed out very eloquently the problems of the system and are clearly kind and thoughtful. It is hard in our world to see exactly how much mental illness exists. Someone recently commented that if they wanted, they could make a fortune doing psychiatry in the banking system – they are also full of “functioning” psycho/sociopaths.

  • DaveP

    > Dave, what you don’t see is that your friends who figured the system out and preyed on it – they are psycho/sociopaths.

    Then I think that means that we’re all psycho/sociopaths.

    The only difference is that different groups have different definitions of “preyed”. And like Republicans and Democrats, they’ll point at each other and claim each other are psychos and sociopaths.

    For example, from one viewpoint, people who don’t pay taxes on their mortgage interest are “preying” on the system in two different ways. Not only are they paying less than their fair share, but they have changed the system so that their form of “preying” is now legal and part of the system.

    > Someone recently commented that if they wanted, they could make a fortune doing psychiatry in the banking system – they are also full of “functioning” psycho/sociopaths.

    So the psychiatrists want to the prey on the bankers, while the bankers want to prey on the psychiatrists, and both will try to manipulate the system to make their form of preying legal.

    > Your friends did have psychiatric problems.

    I’ve known psychiatrists, I’ve known bankers, and I don’t think my friends had any more problems than average. I’m judging “problems” by how happy they seemed to be.

  • Karen Hudson

    Don’t be concerned about any “online pummeling.” Sadly, it was probably filled with spelling and grammatical errors as well as lack of any kind of critical thinking. Our educational system needs to be improved to save these people from voting against their own interests. In the meantime, we continue, as St. Paul told us, to “speak the truth in love.”

  • taylor

    The big problem here that I see is twofold, one saying you are a “christian democrat” suggesting to some that only democrats care for people in need. Which I have talked online to the point of nausea, this hasn’t been my experience in 66 years. I vote republican and not for just one issue. And the other one saying “you speak the truth in love”. not all christians speak the truth in love even though they say they do, so that high horse dismissal needs to be dismounted. Democrats like to think of themselves as the world’s poor saviours when in fact most of the time they, the leaders of said party have their foot on the necks of the people they claim to help. #1 reason I left that political group. And again I say most people who claim to want to save everyone, wants to do it with someone elses money. Your own time and money is the real and right way to go , give a helping hand to someone in need. Of course I’m not dismissing government intervention when and as truly needed, we sure would have a lot more help to go around. As for Dave, well, he’s in a whole other world.

  • RuQu

    An often overlooked point about charity vs government programs is in the economies involved.

    Most people, when asked, overestimate how generous they are. Both in how likely they are to donate, and how much they would donate if they did. Studies back this up repeatedly.

    So by funding social programs only through voluntary donations, you have not only significantly reduced the giver base, but also the value of those donations. Imposed taxes, in contrast, have the widest base possible, and a mandatory rate independent of individual generosity.

    The advantages here are obvious, and apply primarily to two groups. Those who would give anyway have to give less, because more people are giving. Those who are in need are more likely to have their needs met, due to better funding. The group who suffers are those who would not otherwise have given, the ungenerous, who are happy to reap the benefits of social spending (ie decreased homelessness if charities provide housing), but don’t want to share in the costs.

    And while bureaucracy that comes with government can be inefficient, any charity of significant size will also rapidly be forced to develop its own bureaucracy. These inefficiencies of scale exist, but the increased revenue from 100% participation offsets those costs and results in greater net benefit as a whole.

    These inefficiencies can be further minimized, and returns maximized, by partnership with smaller, faster groups to help connect those in need with what they need. Bureaucracies are actually quite efficient if you know how to navigate them, its the redundancy and “you used the wrong form” errors that produce significant delays. Groups like Ellen’s charity have the experience to minimize that.

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