We are wrapping up a three part series on a very complicated issue. Originally, the idea was to write one, normal length article on panhandling. It quickly became three and could have easily been five. This is a complex issue with many different perspectives. The goal here is not to prescribe a specific way to feel about this issue, but rather to illuminate various methods and approaches. In the end, we remember the Hippocratic Oath as a guidepost: “Above all, do no harm.” Considering what is harmful and what is not for another person is tricky and should not be taken lightly with pat answers and simplified “cure-all” philosophies.
The question of whether or not to give money directly to someone who solicits on the streets is just not easy. We encourage those needing assistance to seek help from established organizations that have the tools and expertise to provide them. Also, we ask that TESTREPLACE and dedicated people commit themselves to giving to worthy organizations with financial and in-kind gifts as well as volunteerism. These efforts lead to a collaborative effort to meet problems on an efficient and elevated scale.
Yet, we recognize that there are moments where immediate assistance is needed and that it’s difficult to tell when the presented issue is absolutely true or not. As I have wrestled with these questions, I have come to believe a couple of key things.
- We cannot judge who someone is nor always know exactly what their needs are. A person is not a crack-head or a bum; they are a brother and a sister. 34.7% of all sheltered adults who are homeless have chronic substance abuse issues (source). That’s a lot of people, but it is nowhere near the volume that many people believe it to be. It seems that most simply believe that substance abuse accounts for almost all of homeless cases. This is a far, far cry from the reality. Many times a person will say the best thing to offer someone who asks for money is food, but the reality is that there is more to life’s necessities than just food. There are also basic hygiene items, clean clothes, medicine, and much more that is needed on a daily basis. It’s important to remember that dropping another cheeseburger in someone’s lap might not be what they need or asked for. Ceasing to judge others actually creates freedom in that we are no longer responsible for deciding who is and who isn’t worthy of help based on their circumstances and appearance.
- If we decide to give, we must recognize it as a gift. If my grandmother told me that she wasn’t giving me a $5 bill for my birthday next year because she didn’t trust me to spend it the way she wanted me to, I would be hurt. We say that is a different circumstance, but is it really that different? It’s a gift. We can’t track where that buck was spent, and it’s useless to worry about it. Considering the money as a gift gives you freedom as well, because, honestly, there is no obligation to give a gift to anyone. It is your choice. Decide what you will. But don’t give and then walk away grumbling that it’s going to be wasted. That’s a really bad gift.
- It’s best to give within the context of a relationship. I am a firm believer that giving is best done when there is a relationship. I know people who constantly go out of their way to help friends who are currently experiencing homelessness. They do this because they have spent years meeting these men and women where they are and building true and trusting friendships. The easiest way to know how to give is also the hardest way: going out to do the work of building relationships.
- Support Organizations who are doing good work. Do you have a friend who works with men, women, and children who are currently experiencing homelessness? Does your church have a program or outreach? Are there student organizations at your college or high school that take an interest in social issues? Get involved. Take your friend to coffee and hound the missions minister at your church. The work is being done and there are many who are doing really great work. Throwing your energy towards these groups will not be in vain.
We know the issue of panhandling is not an easy one and there are a lot of conflicting emotions that register with us on many different fronts. Please be safe and remember that no one has the right to aggressively solicit money. Keep in mind that there are great ways to give that don’t involve a direct handout to someone on the street. Keep in mind that if we do give directly, we must do so with open and non-judgmental hearts, otherwise it’s ultimately all in vain.
If you have other questions, please feel free to ask on the blog and we will do our best to answer them well.