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June 20th, 2012
Should I give money to a homeless person on the street if I don’t know what he’s going to use the money for?

Deciding how to respond to a panhandler is one of the challenging aspects of urban life. He could use your spare change to feed his family or to feed his addiction, and you have no way to know which. But should you give money to your niece on her birthday? Or to your coworker who’s retiring? You don’t really know what either of them is going to do with the money either. Once a gift leaves your hands, it ceases to belong to you. In the grand scheme of things, given the bigger structural causes of homelessness, the dollar that you hand to someone on the street is not likely to make a significant impact in that person’s life or in yours. So if you are moved to give, please do so, but remember that it’s a gift. Once you give it, let go.

But whether or not you’re willing to pass out your spare change, you’re not off the hook. What about those structural causes of homelessness? We have a responsibility to do something about them, because of our responsibility to love our neighbors — especially those who are poor and vulnerable. If you’re nervous about what your money might be used for, a donation to an organization that serves the homeless in your community might leave you with peace of mind and contribute to long-term change in the lives of your brothers and sisters in need.

from Neela Kale and the Busted Halo Question Box


Today’s homework assignment: Find an organization in your community that is working to help the poor and vulnerable. Make a donation and/or sign up to volunteer in the coming weeks. Then, use the comments section below to tell us about what you did!

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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Amy

    What I usually do is ask if they would like something to eat and buy it for them….if they say no then i know.igs not going to be put to good use

  • Ken Maher

    I am haunted by Mother Teresa’s words, “Each one of them is Jesus in disguise.” I am too ignorant to judge on my own. When I worked downtown, I regularly passed folks asking for handouts. I made arrangements with a small deli that I passed every day to create a voucher good for a half submarine (hoagie, hero,poorboy) sandwich and a nonalcoholic drink. Every Friday, I’d stop in and pay the deli owner for the vouchers that were redeemed.

  • Mike Hayes

    M –
    Nice comment! I’ve done that and I believe it helps the person to see that we actually think of them as a person. We might not be able to give them exactly what they want but we restore a bit of dignity when we realize that we have a choice to choose and they often do not. Therefore, I try to ask them what they would like often.

  • M

    I try to have food available when possible (like an extra snack bar in my bag) for just in case. Food is food and usually it is accepted. I once offered an apple and the man remarked how rare he ate fresh food.

    Another suggestion: why not ask the panhandler what they would like? Usually, we simply pass by, either donating or not, but stopping to ask about them allows the both of you to engage in a dialogue, humanize them and possibly understand each other a bit better. (It’s hard to stop and take the time, but it works!)

  • Carole H

    I find it much easier and much more effective to donate to a charity that feeds the poor. The Food for the Poor site allows you to donate online.

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