I always followed the conventional wisdom, which is that by giving panhandlers money, you’re prolonging the day they crash, burn and find their way to a good social service agency for help. Then one day, a panhandler persisted.
“Mister,” he said, “could you help me with some change?” I kept walking. “Could you help me with some change?” I kept walking. Then he said, “Hey, mister, please help me. I’m Jesus,” and that stopped me dead in my tracks.
Maybe he was delusional, but he didn’t appear so. Maybe he knew his Scripture; I don’t know.
Whatever the case, he reminded me of these words of Jesus: “. . . I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.”
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?”
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”
And so, I gave the panhandler a couple of dollars. Since then, my inclination is to do the same. I know all the arguments. They’re lazy. They’ll use the money for alcohol or drugs. They’re just scamming you, making a tax-free living.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if they’re scamming me, then let that be on their heads. Laziness seems to be some catch-all category that doesn’t begin to explain how people get this far down and out. I don’t have a good comeback for the “alcohol or drugs” concern except that it’s unfair to stereotype in this way; each case is unique, and my money might do some good for someone. In any event, it’s money I’ll never miss.
I once read about someone who would buy $5 McDonald’s gift cards and give them to people who would ask for money. Maybe that’s an answer.
Day to day, I consider this to be one of the roughest ethical situations I face. My inclination is to err on the side of being charitable when I can. How do you handle this?