What to give to panhandlers? – Pt. 2

Posted: February 24, 2009 in Compassion, Discrimination, Homeless Shelters, Homelessness, Hunger, Misconceptions, Money, Panhandling

In my previous post I outlined why I personally defend a homeless person’s right to panhandle.

I realize that there are those who will disagree with what I wrote. But, that’s fine. They are entitled to their opinions – just as I’m entitled to mine.

They’ll make an allusion that giving to panhandlers doesn’t really help them; so, folks should give to their local area homeless organizations instead. The premise is that the money will do the most good with those agencies – a belief which is somewhat of an incorrect assumption. Let’s face it: traditional homeless support services agencies don’t have a good track record of actually reducing homelessness – the proof of which is quite evident since the numbers of homeless have continued to rise steadily despite all their efforts.  

In the end, the choice whether or not to give to panhandlers is a personal one: a matter of one’s own conscience. Often times, the decision to give may be based in a person’s religious or philosophical beliefs. But, those beliefs can leave a person in a quandary: a desire to give, but not wanting to "empower" someone to use the monies unwisely or for illicit purposes.

That was the whole purpose behind the email I received from Francine.

She stated that although she tries to help out homeless folks; she doesn’t feel comfortable giving them money because she doesn’t want to enable their addictions. So she wrote asking what I thought were the best "things" to give a homeless person.

To be quite honest, I completely understand her not wanting to support someone’s addiction. Many folks feel the same way. However, as I wrote in my reply to her, not every person who panhandles does so because they have an addition disorder. Many of them actually do use the money wisely: spending it on food, clothing, and personal hygiene items. Some will even set aside a little each day so that they can afford motel room from time to time.

Francine actually answered her own question when she mentioned that instead of cash, the use of gift cards as a way of giving to panhandlers. In addition, she said that she had been wanting to put together – as she put it – "goodie bags," but wasn’t quite sure what to put in them.

Despite giving it a good deal of thought, I couldn’t think of what would be the best items for her to include in her care packages. On the other hand, I could think of a lengthy list of things not to include because – as I wrote to her – most of the items which folks generally place in these bags are impractical invariably everyone seems to include the same things. Besides, who needs 10 toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste at the same time; or numerous cans of Vienna sausage?

Then I mentioned one couple I know who routinely give out "goodie bags." They contain only three items: a gift card to a fast food restaurant, a pair of socks and a bottle of water.

For someone who wants to give to the homeless but isn’t comfortable giving money, the approach used by this couple seems to me to be one of the better compromises. It allows a person a way to give without feeling that they might be supporting someone’s addiction.

Personally, I’ve given fast food gift cards to panhandlers. I’ve also given cash. For me, it is a person by person decision. If I happen to know that the person has an addiction, I will generally give a gift card. If they don’t, I have no problem giving cash.

All the same, there have been instances when I’ve given cash – even when I’m aware they have an addiction.


I guess the best way to explain would be to quote directly from my reply email to Francine:

However, sometimes it just a matter of conscience – because I have been known to give cash even when I know the person has an addiction. And there have been times when those persons have surprised me and bought something useful with the money.

One example has to do with a certain homeless gentleman I see quite often. True, he has an alcohol addiction – and most of the time I give him gift cards. Nonetheless, one day I didn’t have one with me, so I gave him cash instead. A couple of days later when I ran into him again, he pointed down to his feet and showed me the shoes he’d bought with the money I’d given him.

That incident taught me a valuable lesson about having pre-conceived ideas of what a panhandler will or will not do with money given to them.

I’m not sure if I’ve been of any help – and hopefully, I haven’t further confused the issue for you.

In the end, the best piece of advice I can offer is to let your conscience be your guide when giving to a panhandler.

When all is said and done, however, one of the best things you can give a panhandler is the dignity of being a fellow human being.

Best Regards,

– michael –

  1. AnAmerican says:

    Many fail to realize that although any support of our homeless citizens is indeed a good thing,quite often the agencies that we donate to might not reach all the homeless in a community. Due to transportation obstacles not all homeless are able to take advantage of community programs.
    It’s pretty difficult for me to see someone who looks like they need food or other basics and not offer some help . Food cards are great..we all have to eat. When I give cash I hope that people use it for things other than their addictions…but at least I know I did my part and gave someone a chance to buy the basics.

  2. Skye says:

    I don’t think one can really worry about what the homeless person will “do with the money”. I think if we “pay it forward” by doing what we know to be right, then the blessings will be passed on. Besides, there are new homeless every day, forced into homelessness by loss of income. They don’t have addictions, they simply don’t have jobs. We can’t really tell who’s who. I’d hate to think I “deprived” someone because I was afraid of what they were going to do with the money.

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