Giving to the Homeless: Yes or No?

What to do?

Giving to Homeless: Yes or No?

Do you ever see any homeless people – or people one might assume are homeless – asking for money?

I suppose it depends on where you live, and where you might work. For me, in a comfortable suburban locale, this isn’t part of the scene. However, working downtown, I do run into people asking for money once in a while. They’re typically sitting on the sidewalk or leaning against a building, looking disheveled and way older than they probably are, dressed in layers of worn out clothes, with a change bucket or tray, and a cardboard sign asking for money.

Whenever I see someone asking for money, the reaction on whether or not to give can vary by the day and situation. I’m always moved in some way, but there are times when I’m more likely to help than others.  As I’ve shared before, anybody can be generous and help out those in need. Of course, we’re human ourselves and have our own survival instinct, so most of us don’t give it all away. At least I don’t.

What do you do when you see such a situation?

Here’s my how mind works, with this quick thought process I go through in a matter a few seconds when I see a typical situation of a homeless person on the street asking for money, spelled out step-by-step:

  1. Feel sympathy. I truly don’t like to see people that are miserable and suffering. My initial thought is not to overanalyze reasons for their plight, but to simply feel bad that I see someone living such a bad existence. I instantly feel a touch of pain for the person.
  2. Think about my immediate needs.  Here’s where self-oriented thinking comes into play. There are two ways I go with this:
    • Rejection. If I’m rushing to get somewhere, which I usually am if it’s a workday, I just might shut down any thoughts of helping. My instant thought in that case would be, “I don’t have time for this”. I think subconsciously, I’m thinking of my own needs and making sure that I get where I need to be – so I don’t end up in that person’s position. Honestly, this is probably the case most of the time, even with that instant sympathetic feeling happening that I mentioned before. In this case, I’ll walk right by and pretend not to notice.  In which case, I feel a tiny bit of guilt, but then suppress the thought and move on with my day and forget about it. The process stops here in these cases.
    • Consideration. These are times when I’m not as rushed, or I see someone who looks particularly in need. If I see somebody who’s really old, I might stop in my tracks and think about offering some help. In these cases, I’ll briefly get a wave of thinking “maybe this one is different”.
  3. Deliberate. Here’s where I start to think, should I help this person? I’m almost ashamed to say, but my instant thought is “I don’t want to part with my hard-earned money”. It’s kind of an instinctive, survival of the fittest reaction. However, I always follow that with a thought along the lines of “yeah, well kindness is a good thing and I should be better than that. Besides, imagine how that person is suffering, and it’s for the greater good to think of others in need”
  4. Decide. At this point, if I hadn’t already walked past as I noted above, and had reached the deliberation stage, I’ll make an instant decision. If the person seems to be young, healthy, or highly confident – they won’t get anything. If the person seems older, sickly, or begs – I break down and give something. It might be a dollar or two. Perhaps food might be the best thing to give, though I’m not always carrying it around with me.

How often do I give? Maybe 5% of the time.

I’ve heard all kinds of arguments for not giving people anything. A more civil way of saying this is comes from folks who say they’d rather give to “organizations” than individuals. A less civil way of saying this comes from people who say things along the lines of “why can’t they just stop being lazy and actually find a job”. Of course, this ignores the reality that jobs aren’t easy to find for everyone depending where they live, and some people are in such sorry shape physically and/or mentally that it might not be an option anyway.

Ultimately, we have to look out for ourselves and our families to survive, first and foremost. You can see this view evidenced by my rough estimate of a 5% or so frequency of giving. However, some compassion and occasional help for the destitute makes us human, right?

Another way to go about giving to the homeless is by donating large items that you no longer have any plans to use. For example, if you own a boat that has not been used for years, you can donate it to a charity, where it can possibly be used to build new homeless shelters. Many people prefer to donate in this manner, since they know where the money is going to be used. When you donate your boat, the proceeds from the sale of the boat are used to help those in need and you can receive tax credits for your donation, making this the best of both worlds.

My Questions for You.

Do you ever give to homeless people – or would you, if you saw one?

Do you have any experiences of giving that you specifically recall? What do you remember from it?

Do you think it’s selfish to totally refuse to help such people in all instances?


  1. says

    Like you, I usually WANT to give, but I don’t give that often. It’s usually because I never,ever carry cash around with me (when I do I usually give a couple of dollars). I usually acknowledge the person, smile, apologize, the like. I get a little uncomfortable but they’re human too and deserve to be treated as such.

  2. says

    Funny you should write about this now. I was walking through the Loop to an appointment last Tuesday and encountered at least one panhandler per block. That seems excessively high to me. I thought the economic news was that unemployment was decreasing. I wonder what has led to so many more people forced into the streets to ask for assistance.

    In those seconds of encounter, my mind runs through a very similar thought process to yours. I rarely give money, though. Maybe it’s because as a woman that means fishing through my purse, sorting through my wallet to see what cash I have on hand (usually not much), etc. All of this means that it would take me several minutes that I usually don’t have since I’m almost always pressed for time. And how disappointing if I only find I have a 20 dollar bill. I’ve tacitly given this person hope for a hand out, and then I have to dash those hopes.

    Like Daisy, I do try to look at people and smile at least, and I’ve been thanked for that by some panhandlers. From what I’ve heard, being out on the streets can take a real mental toll because nearly every person looks right through you/past you. It’s like you’re invisible. Think about how emotionally impactful that is: you do not exist. So I do try to acknowledge people by looking at them and usually smiling. “Yes, I see you. I just can’t help right now.”

    I have one really interesting story about panhandling. Several years ago I encountered
    a guy outside a fast food restaurant. He was opening the door for people and asking them to buy him a sandwich. Even though I had very little income at the time, it struck me that this guy was asking for something specific: he wasn’t asking for money, he was asking for a sandwich. So I asked him what kind of sandwich he wanted. He told me and I bought one for him. (Sadly, he got hassled by the restaurant manager for trying to sit down and eat it in the restaurant.) A day or two later, I found a couple crumpled dollar bills laying near my desk at the office. I asked around at the office and no one claimed them. So basically I was cosmically gifted with the same amount of money I had spent buying that guy a sandwich a couple days before. Pretty cool.

    • Squirrelers says

      Linda – great story. I’d like to think there was some boomerang effect there, where your kindness was appreciated. I think that the approach you take in terms of thinking about the emotional toll people in that situation might face is spot on. Glad you brought that up, as it’s probably not thought about by many. Seeing people just walk by and pretend to ignore has got to have a profound effect.

  3. says

    I avoid giving money to the homeless. Whe I owned my restaurant, I would give them food. I would give money, clothes or furniture to organizations that help the homeless. My wife volunteering her time to help with an organization that helps the homeless by feeding them.

  4. says

    I would and have given money to organizations that serve the poor, but I think giving money directly to an individual you know nothing about is unwise. The reality is, a primary reason for homelessness is addiction. In these cases, a direct ‘gift’ of cash is likely to be used to feed the addiction, not to buy food as you might hope. Better to give time and money if you want to help the poor to food banks, shelters, and free physical and mental health clinics.

    I’ve not done this, but I’ve thought about making up cards with a list of resources for the poor in my community, many of which I support with cash and time. When I pass a panhandler, I could hand them a card along with a sincere suggestion that they take advantage of these resources. I might even offer to drive the person if he or she is interested in a particular resource. In other words, instead of giving a dollar to you and every other homeless individual I encounter, I’ve supported these fine organizations, and they’re ready, willing, and able to help you with food, shelter, medical care, and more.


    • Squirrelers says

      Kurt – I remember one guy who asked for money years ago, when I was younger and out for an evening with a group of friends. One guy in the group, who was kind of a jerky guy actually, surprised the heck out of me by giving the homeless guy a dollar. I was impressed and suprised, and actually glad to see that this guy had it in him to do that. Unfortunately, we saw the homeless guy in a bar later that night drinking a beer. It was a lesson learned that not all folks will make the best of the help offered. Of course, there are also many that probably do need the help and would use the help too.

  5. says

    I see a lot of people who are either homeless or panhandlers (or maybe both, I have no idea) near where I live. I don’t generally give to them, because first I’m usually in a hurry, and second I rarely have any cash on me period. Sometimes I do out and buy things for them though and go back and give it to them later.

    • Squirrelers says

      Jackie – I know what you mean about being in a hurry. And yes, if no cash handy, it’s not like we can put a donation on our credit card directly to that person.

  6. says

    Having been both I can tell you stories that would make a movie. No, you don’t know who you are dealing with, nor where they came from or are in life. I’ve known people who lost their homes and engineers who walked away from life. I’ve known alcoholics and people so smart yet crazy it scared me.

    And no, the government doesn’t hand out money to these folks anymore. Most of them get sent to shelters and given a meal, then sent on their way. You can’t get assistance without an address, and you can’t get an address if you have no cash.

    The one memory that will always stick out was a homeless guy I knew of who would walk the sides of busy roads, wearing a sign “will work for food”. People would throw hamburger wrappers and leftover fast food at him. He never gave up. He did find work now and then.

    I had a friend tell me of her work at McDonalds where a homeless guy would come in daily for water. Someone asked if he ever had a job; he said he did long ago but no one wants him now. The manager and employees voted to give him a job. He showed up daily, got cleaned up and was so proud when he found an apartment. All he could do was fries and bag food, but he loved his job from what I heard.

    That’s why I don’t ever look away because you don’t know where they are, were, or are trying to get to.

    • Squirrelers says

      Bill – great comment, thanks for sharing your perspective. First off, not cool that people threw things at that guy. However, it’s great that he apparently genuinely made the most of his opportunity. This is a really good example of how some people can back on their feet if given an opportunity to do so.

  7. Squirrelers says

    Marina – Wow, cold indeed. Not everyone has the mental/physical wherewithal to “get their act together”, and not sure that a “kick in the butt rather than a coin” is a solution. But hey, we all have the right to an opinion.

  8. says

    This was a very good thought provoking post that sparked some good conversation with our family. I would say I also walk by the majority of the time without even a look. We give to the church, organizations and families in need so rationalize away helping the truly down and out. I need to do a little research in our area of Colorado Springs to see what kind of help they give so when I walk by I can at least look them in the eyes, give them a smile, give them some advice on getting shelter and food and lift a prayer that they can improve their situation. I do have compassion for them and want to help. Giving them a sandwich or some food would be a great idea or supporting the local homeless shelters. Thanks for the good read…

    • Squirrelers says

      Jeff – glad to read that this topic sparked conversation. I know what you mean about wanting to help – and giving them at the minimum acknowledgement is a great start, with food being tangible help. Thanks for stopping by.

    • Squirrelers says

      Robert – sometimes it’s wasted, but sometimes not – but giving indirectly is at least better than not giving.

  9. says

    This is tough. I was involved with homeless ministry group for a while in college, and we would go to Boston Common and basically hang out with a bunch of homeless people for several hours on Saturday mornings. We also gave them food, coffee, and had donated clothes and socks to give them. It’s interesting the kind of culture that exists in the world of homeless people. It was usually the same people that came back every week, and we built pretty good relationships with them. The most important I learned from these experiences was that at the very least, you should acknowledge the people. Even if you can’t give money or don’t want to or whatever – at least wave, say hello, and wish them a good day. Most of the homeless people I’ve talked to just feel like they are invisible, and that is the most painful part.

    I’m no expert, but this is the conclusion I have come to. I don’t give money to strangers, but I will usually smile and acknowledge them.

    • Squirrelers says

      ImpulseSave – this is a theme from the comments, from a few folks anyway: acknowledgement. Meaning, at least acknowledging a homeless person so they don’t feel invisible, easing the psychological pain. Thanks for the comment.

  10. says

    I have never handed cash to a homeless person in the US. I have bought a paper from them in our local homeless newspaper sales program, but I feel like handing them cash is enabling, it is not fixing anything.

  11. says

    I don’t carry cash.

    In cities I give money to buskers (people playing music etc.) but not people on the street asking for money. I prefer to give money to organizations that reach more people than the people on the street asking for money. Food banks, women’s shelters, homeless shelters, school back-pack programs (kids get a backpack full of food at school), etc. I especially like programs that provide food and services that can help people get help.

    • Squirrelers says

      Nicole – I like to see that these programs provide food and helping others get help. All great things, really. What’s that saying about teaching a man to fish? When it comes to giving in person, it might just be the soft side of me that just jumps out during some of those times I see a homeless person. Not always, as I alluded to, but sometimes.

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