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

Neela Kale is a writer and catechetical minister based in the Archdiocese of Portland. She served with the Incarnate Word Missionaries in Mexico and earned a Master of Divinity at the Jesuit School of Theology. Some of her best theological reflection happens on two wheels as she rides her bike around the hills of western Oregon.