To Give or Not To Give?


When I saw a man panhandling on the Venice Boardwalk the other day, I was prepared to pull out a dollar until I read his disturbing sign: “I’m homeless. Need money for weed. Hey, at least I’m honest.” Does that mean most homeless people aren’t honest? His sign also made me wonder: What’s the right thing to do with my spare change? To give or not to give? — I am a teen in search of a panhandler policy.

Most of us want to help. Many of us aren’t sure what to do when seemingly needy street people confront us for money, especially when we don’t know how they’ll use it. According to an article in the Atlantic, “giving money to the poor is an economic crisis of the heart, a tug-of-war between the instinct to alleviate suffering and the knowledge that a donation might encourage, rather than relieve, the anguish of the poor.”

The anguish is everywhere. In the U.S. there are roughly 3.5 million people on the streets. Many are panhandlers. In a study conducted by the Canadian Medical Association 54% of panhandlers use alcohol either everyday, or more than once a week. John Stackhouse, a journalist who worked undercover living on the streets, found that beggars typically spend “almost all their begging money on their addictions.” With one in five people giving to panhandlers, are we contributing to a vicious cycle? Many organizations, including homeless charity Thames Reach, say yes: According to studies, 58% to 80% of those who beg use their money to support their drug habits.

More than anything, homeless people need direction. A 1999 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 80% of the homeless need help finding a job and housing — two things spare coins can’t buy. That’s why the Portland Business Alliance created Real Change, not Spare Change. To avoid “perpetuating” the circumstances of homelessness, the initiative urges people to drop their pocket change in designated meters that support local homeless agencies instead of giving directly to the homeless themselves.

In a fascinating experiment, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation tried to transform the circumstances of homelessness by asking 15 people on the streets “what they needed to change their lives.” The answers included a prepaid cell phone, a pair of sneakers, and a “camper van.” The foundation then provided 3,000 pounds a year and someone to help them with their budget. After the “intervention,” most all of them were off the streets and functioning independently, getting treatment for addiction, signing up for welfare and keeping up with their bills.

In terms of áforming a panhandler policy to live by, channeling spare funds into local agencies is probably the best way to go for the long-term. In the short-term, though, isn’t there something to be said for no strings attached, instant gratification giving? After all, there are exceptions, like David in the UK, who, after being homeless for three years, panhandled his way off the streets.

And then there’s this story: As my mother was feeding her parking meter one day, a street person asked her for money. She ignored him and went to lunch. When she later realized that her meter had expired, she rushed back to her car. Instead of a ticket on her windshield, she found the panhandler she had rebuffed smiling at her. “I didn’t want you to get a ticket, so I fed the meter for you,” he said.

It makes me realize that spare change might not solve the problem of homelessness, but if he can spare a quarter, maybe sometimes I can too.


Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

federico bortoletto
federico b4 years ago

Grazie per l'articolo.

Kelly R5 years ago

If you want to help vets or homeless give to reputable organizations. People on the street do just use it for drugs and/or alcohol. Call your local Vet hospital to find the local vet charities. Or your local United Way. Good job if you did not give him any money if you did at least you learned a lesson. They PREY on people feeling sorry for them. Do NOT most are on S.S.I. and drink and or drug their money within the first days of the month. Just look at your local shelters at the middle to the end of the month. You will see long lines for food and shelter!! I was taught in the rooms of recovery that I would be participating in the problem NOT the solution.

Joy Jin
Joy Jin5 years ago

Wow, this is a really disputed question. I think that it'd be best to give them money but I'm not sure.

Betty B.
Betty Baumbach5 years ago

As far as is possible I give to individuals that I know need it -- I have contacted many organizations lately to help people and no one respond or they say they can't help-- I wonder why ? they get generous donations but either can't or won't give to those in need --are they getting this money to fill their won pockets? thats not right to do-- we are told that we are blessed so we can be a blessing-- lets bless ( help ) those that do need it --I'm sure everyone of us knows some one that can use a little bit of help-- find them and help where you can-- I do and I am on a low pension--but even enough to buy a loaf of bread these days might make the difference between being hungry or not .

Debbie L.
Debbie Lim6 years ago

I'm not always sure when I want to give money or not because the big question is always the same: What will they do with it? If I was certain that they would use it for something useful, I wouldn't hesitate to spare some change, but most of them use it for their addictions. That's why I never know when to give...

David Moffatt
David Moffatt6 years ago

We have a lot of veterans out on the streets of late, not to mention a number of people who were "emptied" out of state hospitals and now cannot care for themselves. Do take into consideration that I live in a small town, but yes, I encounter panhandlers from time to time. Some are scam artists--the ones who throw a self-righteous fit when refused tend to be. Some are alcoholics/addicts--a good look or a sniff will tell you (though I have to say, if I was living on the street, I might feel the need to self-medicate too). Some are in serious need of professional help--whether they want it or not I don't generally inquire.

Some are people who are just plain down on their luck--indeed, there are an increasing number in these times. For those that seem to fit into that category, I ask if they've had anything to eat today. If not, I'll get them something to eat. I also carry cards with the addresses for Social Services, the Salvation Army, and 12-Step meetings (which are great resources for the homeless because a fair number of members have been there) and give those out.

So many panhandlers carry signs that read "Will Work For Food" or the like. I have no work to offer, and suspect many would refuse if I offered it (perhaps another way of spotting con artists). But I won't let a fellow American go hungry. The resources ARE there for many people, and as often as not, all they need is some information and to take the short walk to the right building.

James E.
James E6 years ago

Interesting that this story has the most divided poll results of any I have read on Care2.

I also see the dilemma, but usually give anyway. There are exceptions, like the guy who comes over from a group of men standing and sitting around drinking, or maybe he is smoking cigarettes and has a pack in his shirt pocket (expensive habit), or for some reason my gut says no, I don't contribute. Those situations are not the norm, so usually I end up giving.

I remember of few instances where the individual was asking for change outside the door of a fastfood resturant. I took them inside and paid for their order. It cost more of course, but felt really good and was clearly appreciated. And maybe, some one seeing me do so was encouraged to do the same thing. Sort of a pay it forward moment.

Besides, I figure I will waste money at some point during the day, and the change at that moment might do one person some good. But then I have always been a glass-half-full person most of the time, and try to be all of the time. I try to focus on those who make good use of the help they are given, rather than those whose bad-habit my help might support.

Loo Samantha
Loo sam6 years ago

thanks for the article.

Yvette S.
Past Member 6 years ago

pan handling is a term which originated in the 1800's when beggars would shake a small pot with coins to attract the attention of passers by that they were in need. As I mentioned in a previous posting begging has been in our existence since one person was in need for whatever the reason and none would assist without the obvious pleas for help. We are all, in truth, at some point in our lives, begging for something..attention, pity, understanding, love, a pay raise, one more chance, a better existence for ourselves and/or others, education, recognition, patience, tolerance. But if we are very, very lucky we need not beg for warm clothing to cover our bodies, food, and shelter for ourselves, our children, our loved ones. If you can not donate anything to another who has less than you then please, please (I am begging here)...choose to be kind in your interactions with people,( fellow human beings), so that you have left one thing which is as free to give as the day we were born...compassion.