How do you deal with panhandling?

For most of my career in St. Louis, I worked downtown. Like most metro areas, we had our share of homeless people, and I’d occasionally be approached for a handout.

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?

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9 Responses to How do you deal with panhandling?

  1. John Couleur says:

    Great question, and one I have thought about often. Internationally, where the social infrastructure is weak, I have a daily budget of money to give away. In the US, despite the recent publicity, the data I see still says that many single homeless, maybe the majority, have a debilitating problem; addiction or mental disability. They should be taken care of in homeless shelters. Giving them money may make me feel good but but only enables them and likely won’t be used effectively. I give a lot of money to the community, try to be a good citizen and am open to feedback on this.

    • Peter Faur says:

      John, thanks for your comments. I wish there were clear answers on this. I have a friend who says she says a little prayer when asked, then tries to determine whether she’s being led to give or not.

      I certainly understand the enabling argument. When I give something, I feel as though I’m also taking the individual seriously as a person and recognizing them as someone of worth. Maybe I’m being played for a fool, but I feel that at that point, that’s on the other person, not on me.

      I really appreciate your taking time to comment. I really like the work you’re doing at the Katybug Fund. It would be great to meet sometime.

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  3. Tom Weller says:

    Over the years, I have wrestled with this situation many times in different cities. Now, with my financial situation being what it is, I don’t have the luxury of simply handing money away, however, having had an experience several years ago, convinced me the gift of money is not necessarily the path one should take. I was approached, gave up my change, and followed the guy two blocks to the bar. Another time, I was approached in an ARCO gas station asking for enough to buy gas to get here or there. I put $5 in the tank, and lo and behold, the guy not only thanked me but explained he had to get his sick child to the hospital, and didn’t have the money to get there. So I guess it goes both ways.

    I have been known, if I see a “lean and hungry” person panhandling, to simply go and get a Subway, or some fruit at the store, and hand it over. Couple of weeks ago, there was was a veteran in a wheel chair outside of a Burger King. Now veterans are a different story with me. I went in without him asking; (I could see he was homeless), Bought a couple of things off the dollar menu, and gave them to him and saluted. The smile was worth this simple act of recognition. I hope he’s doing well wherever he is.

    I think the random act of kindness is a concept we can all embrace to some degree. Just a personal decision as to how I guess. Thanks for this topic Pete.

  4. I like your comment, “then let that be on their heads.” I think God is the judge, not me.
    I have done the McDonald’s gift cards. When my husband worked in a neighborhood with a lot of homeless, he would buy them a fast-food lunch. A friend in a bigger city keeps brown lunch bags in her car with peanut butter crackers and bottled water and hands those out.

  5. Brian says:

    In Jakarta, pan handling is rampant and heart wrenching. When a young child no older then 5 is walking down lanes of traffic stopped at an interesection singing, dancing, and begging for money it is difficult to not reach into your wallet and empty it out. We’ll also encounter women holding infants and severely deformed people – limbs missing, burned bodies, people who have suffered obvious industrial accidents.

    When we first arrived, we gave them some money. Then we learned that what you saw in Slumdog Millionaire also applies to Jakarta – many of the panhandlers actually work for organized crime.

    There is also fraud. On the commute from Jakarta to Bogor, where the expressway becomes a two lane road, beggars are common and prevalent. At one spot, a man stands behind a woman seated in the middle of the road. At first glance, she appears to have no legs. Upon closer inspection, she’s standing in a large hole in the middle of the road.

    We’ve stopped giving money….but will sometimes provide food.

    • Peter Faur says:

      Thanks, Brian. These are hard things to see, but what great experiences you’ve gathered as an expatriate. You and your family are richer for it. (Now come on home!)

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