[Who will we help, and why? How much is too much to give? Can someone ever deserve charity? These are a few questions that will be explored in the Culture of Charity posts. Today’s topic is the effect President Obama’s various bailout plans have shaped the culture of charity.]

When I’m not out saving the world, romping around a Swiss mountain range with my personal herd of golden retriever puppies, or teaching unicorns how to read after school, I work for a local non-profit housing counseling agency. The organization was started with a main goal of increasing and sustaining homeownership, with a focus on first-time homebuyers. This is accomplished through education via group classes, credit counseling, budget counseling, etc. However, in the last 2 years or so, much of the organization’s focus and energy has been put towards loss mitigation- sustaining homeownership by staving off foreclosure. I started as a volunteer knowing NOTHING about the housing industry (including the definition of “mortgage”…yikes) and today manage the list of about 180 clients we serve every week. In the past year, the organization has gone from getting 1 new loss mitigation client every other day to getting 2 new clients every day. That’s a lot, my friends.

What I found most rewarding about my job (which involves communicating with both the lenders & clients, trying to modify their loans and/or work out repayment plans to cure the delinquency) was the sense that I was helping people. Many of the people were victims of unforseen, undeserved circumstances, for instance a death or illness in the family. The gratefulness they expressed during the weekly phone calls was enough to propel me through endless hours listening to mind-numbing holding music. Of course, there was a not-so-grateful client here and there, but crazy freak-outs were rare.

Crazy freak-outs today? Not so rare. It seems as though the thousands of delinquent mortgagors have found a certain strength in numbers. There’s not so much “Thank you!” as there is “Why is this taking so long??” Also with the increase in number of clients has been an increase of the number of clients in these sad financial situations for not-so unforseen, uncontrollable circumstances. I believe that though there are many factors that are contributing to this changing mindset (panic in response to a weak economy, spread of foreclosure myths, etc.) I feel that the federal bailout programs have had a great deal to do with it all.

I’m in no way qualified or prepared to discuss the political/financial merit of the various bailout programs, and do not desire to do so. This is just a personal experience with the psychological effects. I think that when the government acknowledged that the economy was a mess, that there was a shared blame for the cause, and stepped in to financially bolster the victims, something clicked inside people’s heads. And what clicked was this little thought: “I deserve this.”

This summer I noticed the changed atmosphere almost instantly. Our services weren’t sought, they were downright demanded. Clients began looking upon the policies and procedures of both our organization and their lenders as arbitrary, and became upset when the process was slowed down, not realizing that the complications were a direct result of their non-compliance. As a charity worker, this made my job really, really hard. I struggled to compassionately serve ornery, ungrateful clients. I guess I took some of it a little personally. I thought to myself, why should I help them? Their sense of entitlement is offensive, they show no appreciation for the work we do, and they are the ones who got themselves into the situation in the first place! There were days when one of us in the office would burst out “YOU signed the title that said you will pay no matter what! Not ME!!”

I became conflicted. What used to be the joy of my job was now the bane of my existence. I still wanted to help people, but they were being so hard to help! Could I really deny them services on the basis of them being ungrateful? Can anyone really ever deserve charity? I found it ironic that I was so frustrated with them feeling like charity was something they deserved, while expecting them to meet some vague qualifications before I would help them. Kind of futile, right? And I think the situation I found myself in and the questions I was asking were really telling of the way we as givers determine who we will help, and why.

So as not to leave you thinking I hate my job and everyone I work for, I’ll catch you up on the last few months. After deciding that my job was to help people, no matter what, that’s what I worked on doing to the best of my ability. I started listening for the cues from my clients that told me what they really needed. They’re often desperate, stressed people who wait for months and months for any communication at all from the lenders. OK, so I make sure to call them every week, even if I don’t have much of an update for them. Just to say hello, we are helping, you are not alone. We didn’t forget you. The difference has been…amazing. My weekly voicemails/calls from clients has nearly halved. I am getting more appreciative gushing, even when my update is “Uh..there’s not really much of an update.” So perhaps there’s a lesson in there somewhere too. No one can deserve charity, or even love, although people can be more or less prone to receive either. And yet our shared humanity obligates us to love each other. And that includes cranky delinquent mortgagors.