The Union Rescue Mission in Wichita has given beds and meals to homeless men for 63 years.

The Union Rescue Mission in Wichita has given beds and meals to homeless men for 63 years.

It does so because Jesus demanded repeatedly that his followers help the poor. But in recent weeks, Denny Bender, the faith-based group's executive director, has posed a question: Can charity hurt people?

He has not decided the answer yet.

"The Mission will always help these men," he said.

"But are we enabling their behaviors, by taking away their dignity, by making them so comfortable they have no reason to improve themselves?"

When Bender first posed the question to himself, Calvin Cartwright and other men came to mind.

Cartwright is a tall, lanky Union Rescue Mission regular. He speaks with polished diction. He has a leather-tanned face; long, lank strands of hair hang down from a tanned, balding head, and only one brown tooth is still attached in his upper jaw.

Cartwright, 68, is a legend among the homeless, Bender said. He has a pronounced problem with authority. And by Cartwright's own account, he has slept and eaten at the mission for more than 30 years.

For free.

Cartwright, courteous and approachable, rolled his eyes when asked whether charity hurts.

"What a bunch of crap," he said. "I might have to find someplace else to go."

For close to 40 years now, people have told him to move along, go away, disappear, he said. He has dug meals out of trash bins and slept on streets, in freezing vacant condemned houses and in hidey-holes of underbrush where he hopes no one can find him.

He has done none of those things lately because he has slept at the mission. But he will not let anyone judge or control him, he said.

"The street is dangerous," he said. "There's always somebody you got to be careful around.

"But I'm still alive at age 68 instead of dead at 51 like I should have been. Because I know my way around."

Conservative politicians in both Topeka and Washington, D.C., have questioned repeatedly whether food stamps and other charitable programs make poverty bigger by creating a sense of entitlement.

Some of those politicians have suggested instead that able-bodied people need incentives to work, that they need motivations to get jobs.

Sandy Swank, director of housing and homeless services for Inter-Faith Ministries, has spent decades working with street people. She believes demands should be made of many of them.

"But the problem is, about 25 percent are incapable of working," she said, "and another 25 percent to 50 percent are probably capable of working, if they get good mental health assessments, and if they get proper services - and if they get proper medications. And take them.

"Good luck with that," she added.

Bender said he saw her point. But he thinks that the question "Can charity hurt?" should be asked.

It's a question that Jan Haberly, the executive director of the Lord's Diner, says she has asked herself daily - and with misgivings - even though the Lord's Diner has won accolades for feeding hundreds of poor people every night in downtown Wichita since 2002. It added a second diner in the Planeview area in 2011.

The Lord's Diner feeds children, elderly, the mentally ill, the homeless and working people every night, no questions asked. It won't stop doing that, she said.

But she has pondered the same question and found no easy answer. She's sure that most people she feeds don't have any other way to eat. She's also sure that poverty is such a tough and lonely burden that some of her clients eat there to stave off loneliness as well as hunger.

She thinks that a small minority of her diners take advantage. But how does a Christian organization, or any organization, go about separating those from the truly needy? She doesn't know.

"When we started sending the food truck up to 25th and Arkansas, we noticed a generational thing," Haberly said of a new outreach program that began September. "The older people, when they came for the food, obviously felt bad, some of them, and some handed us a dollar, perhaps feeling better that they'd given something in return.

"But the younger people don't feel that way."

Whether charity can be toxic is a question that Habitat for Humanity in Wichita asked itself many years ago when it insisted, from the time of its founding here, that it would always make poor people give something substantial in return for receiving a newly built home.

A family has to invest 250 to 400 "sweat equity" hours of work to earn the house, said executive director Ann Fox. Officials also ask them to take a 40-hour course in which Habitat teaches them how to manage their money.

Fox said that charities like hers have learned much from poor people that gets ignored by some politicians, who she said sometimes generalize about poor people getting jobs.

"People tend to put people with problems into categories, and talk about 'the poor,' " she said. "Forget the categories: People in poverty are all unique."

The Lord's Diner, in giving away charity, doesn't do things the way Habitat does, Fox said. But she's glad the Lord's Diner and the Kansas Food Bank are out there.

"In a world with so many poor people, charities like the diner show that there is still a place in the world for compassion," she said. "Compassion is critical.

"Beyond that, I don't know of anyone who ever felt motivated by being judged."

Bender said the Union Rescue Mission will never turn its back on the men it takes in, though many are able-bodied and many are sinners. Many are parolees just released from the Kansas Department of Corrections who literally have no other place to go, Bender said.

Some of the men drink or use drugs. Cartwright said he prefers 24-ounce bottles of Natural Ice malt liquor - nearly 6 percent alcohol, and "a dollar and seven cents apiece" - when he can get it. And "sometimes I'll take a hit of crack, if it is offered. I never buy it."

At the beginning of every month, when Social Security checks arrive, many regular clients disappear, Bender said. They reappear at the Union Rescue Mission after they've spent Social Security money while sharing motel rooms and drinking.

All Bender has done so far, he said, is raise questions with his board and staff. Are there ideas more useful than giving away beds? Perhaps deadlines, small user fees, and maybe some sort of work-for-charity exchange? Something that provides men more dignity and structure?

They've reached no decisions, he said. He worries that changes might cause cruelties.

"The last thing we want to do is create more difficult straits than what these men already face," he said. "There are those who wouldn't be able to do much - those who have disabilities and other deficiencies.

"All we are doing is talking about what things we might modify to be more helpful, and to provide more of an exit plan from homelessness."