Should I or shouldn’t I give money to people on the street?

It’s an age old question: do you give money to someone panhandling on the street? I heard Patty Stonesifer, former CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, on NPR recently talking about a Slate article she wrote with her daughter trying to answer this question. She argues that rather than giving handouts, we should get involved in addressing the root causes of homelessness:

Whatever actions or amount you end up committing—and I realize that amount will vary depending on your own income as well as other giving and life priorities—decide how much of that (money, time, or voice) you want to spend on the immediate needs of the folks in your neighborhood, on prevention efforts, and on public and political advocacy. Then make your commitment and give those dollars and that time to the best organizations you can find.

I have to agree that in general it’s preferable to get personally involved and focus “upstream” on the problem than simply the giving a few bucks when approached on the street. Not sure where to start? The National Coalition for the Homeless has a great fact sheet on How YOU can help end homelessness, full of practical ideas. Other resources for getting informed and involved are the National Alliance to End Homelessness and the Corporation for Supportive Housing. As Patty mentions, you might want to get involved in local planning and advocacy efforts to end homelessness. You can see a Google map of where 10-year plans to end homelessness have been completed here.

Of course, these long-term solutions won’t keep people from approaching you for money on the street, and it can be difficult to turn them away. A number of years ago, I went for a bicycle ride with a friend and got a flat tire. We were about 10 miles away from home, and I didn’t have a cell phone so I needed to make a call at a pay phone. But, I didn’t have any money with me, so I had to beg for a few dimes. It took several times of rejection, with people either just looking away or doing their best to politely say “no” before a kind soul bailed me out. I felt I was “deserving” of help, not someone making up a story to get some money to satisfy an addiction, but some people didn’t believe me. Have I done the same? Should it matter is someone is “deserving” in my eyes?

What do you think?

Published by Bill

Social justice advocate and collaborative leader

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