Sign Of The Times

Posted: July 31, 2008 in Employment, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Money, Panhandling

Yesterday I received an email from a gentleman who wanted to know about the homeless and panhandling.

In his email, this gentleman mentioned that he considered himself "… a good Christian man" who was "… living on a fixed income." He went on to say that he quite often comes across homeless who are asking for spare change or are standing somewhere holding a cardboard sign. He was apologetic that while he has a desire to help, because he is on a fixed income, he doesn’t always have the wherewithal to do so. In addition, there are times when he’s worried that if he does give a homeless person some money that they will only use his "… money to buy something to drink."  

Finally, at the end of the email he wrote:

"I don’t know if giving my money to the homeless is helping them or hurting them. I don’t want them to use my money for getting drunk but I don’t want them to be hungry. Would it be better to just give my money to the homeless shelter and not to the homeless? What do you think?"

I always have difficulties answering this type of email because there is no one solution to panhandling.

It’s obvious that homeless support agencies would prefer that people donate the money to them instead of to the homeless directly. The reasoning they use is that if you give them the money, instead of to the homeless, you’re helping them help the homeless. Which is actually a valid reason – but only to an extant.

It’s true that homeless support service organizations require funding in order to continue providing services to the homeless. It’s also true, that funding to these agencies is limited, which means that the amount of services they can provide is directly affected by the amount of funding they have. More funding theoretically means that they can provide more services. However these agencies, regardless of how much funding they have, generally provide only a meal and a bed – which is a far cry from providing the types of assistance that the homeless need in order to transition back into some form of housing.

The homeless, on the other hand, would prefer that you by-passed the homeless support agencies and gave them the money directly. And believe it or not, this is also valid reasoning, since money that the homeless receive directly is money that they can use straightaway.

First off, let me say this: there are those homeless who will use the money they receive from panhandling to indeed buy something to drink. That’s just the reality of life. On the other hand, there are those homeless who panhandle who use the money they get through panhandling to buy food and other personal necessities. That, too, is the reality of life.

I personally have met homeless who panhandle, take the money they get and go out afterward and become fall down drunk. But, I also know quite a number of homeless who panhandle and use the monies they receive to feed themselves, buy clothing or other personal needs.

There are folks who believe that you should give money only to the homeless support service agencies. There are others who prefer giving money to the homeless directly. Personally, I think there is room in our society to do both. And that’s the way it should be.

However, for those who might want to give money directly to the homeless but are concerned that the homeless might be using those funds to "get drunk" there is an easy alternative. Most fast food restaurants offer some form of "food cards." These are credit or debit type cards which will allow the person to purchase food. So, if you want to give something directly to the homeless but are worried about their use of your gift, this is a viable alternative to giving them cash.

There is one thing I do want to address regarding the email: the use of the phrase "…my money."

Once you give a homeless person money, it is no longer your money – it is their money. And as such, it is up to them to decide how to spend that money. If they use that money in a way that is harmful to themselves, it is really their business and no one else’s. And no one has the right to criticize that choice.

Don’t misunderstand, I most certainly do not approve of a homeless person who panhandles, then goes out and gets drunk with that money. I don’t approve of anyone – homeless or non-homeless – getting drunk or high. My opinion is that that is the epitome of stupidity.

But to be completely honest, while it would be nice if no homeless person ever had to panhandle, I would much prefer that they engage in that activity than doing something that is harmful to someone else; or having to commit an actual crime to put a few dollars in their pockets.

And before someone is so foolish as to post a comment or send me an email saying that the homeless should just all go out and get "real" jobs let me point something out: there is approximately 5.5 percent of America’s work force which is currently unemployed. That number is expected to rise and reach as high as 6 percent by the beginning of next year.

As the numbers of folks who become unemployed rises, so will the numbers of homeless rise.

It’s just a sign of the times.

  1. Chris says:

    I’ve given money, but usually only to a few homeless and almost every time they’ve felt the need to try to explain their situation (which I’m not sure I really have required or even asked, but they’ve felt maybe obliged to say?… not sure). Several other times, I’ve given specific items or drinks or made food and distributed. If you want them to spend money on food but don’t think they will, then offer food. If you want them to spend money on clothing but don’t think they will, then offer clothing. In my mind though, there will always be something they will need money for, and a fair amount of it won’t be provided through any homeless service organizations. For example, one woman (who’s no longer homeless as of about 2 mos ago!) was trying to visit her mother but was looking for something around $10 (I forget, maybe it was $20) to take a bus to get there. I just so happened to actually have pretty much that exact amount on me (which is rare, I almost never carry cash) – so she got it (no I usually don’t give $10 or $20 either, but I’ve grown over visits to know her a bit more and maybe more than just someone who is homeless). Other occasions, I’ve only had spare change which I have given.

  2. AnAmerican says:

    The food coupons from the various fast food restaurants is a great way to help those out who need food. They can cash them in for what they want and the availability of most of the chains is easy for folks. I’ve found that the shelters in my community require a good bit of travel and when someone is hungry having to navigate the distance just doesn’t make sense…they need more immediate nourishment. If I see someone in need then I feel compelled to offer something to help out ~I don’t go around hungry myself so don’t think others should either.
    Food banks for the poor are so easy to support & require only a mindfullness of those less fortunate when grocery shopping.
    I could care less how people spend money that I might give to them although I hope they do use it for basic needs. In my book helping another person in need is never a bad thing.

  3. Matt Barnes says:

    This is a very difficult topic to approach. It is something which I have not yet had the courage to deal with in my own blog, mostly because I am not certain where I stand on it myself.

    I love the idea of these food cards but I have not heard of them here in the UK, it is something which I must look into.

    Something which I do feel is an excellent alternative is the Big Issue magazine we have here. I’m not sure if you have it there or not though I expect you have something similar.

    The Big Issue is a magazine sold on the streets by the homeless in shopping centers in cities and towns throughout the country. Proceeds from the sales go to homeless and other charitable organisations and the vendor is able to buy them at a discounted rate enabling them to earn a little income to spend as they please and perhaps instill some self worth at the same time.

  4. michael says:


    In the U.S., a number of cities do provide something similar to the Big Issue – most of which are referred to as “street news.” Sadly, however, the availability of such “newspapers” is not yet wide spread. So, while I personally would applaud it as a viable means for the homeless to do something “productive” it is availiable to only a small and limited number of homeless.

    – m –

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