Panhandlers – To Give or Not to Give

Panhandlers present an internal conflict for me, as I think they do for many. I have a strong desire to help, but I am unsure of whether giving money is really helping in the best way. With that uncertainty, it is all too easy for inaction to win out in the few seconds of opportunity as I pass by a panhandler. Sometimes I give, but more often, I walk right by.

I am not happy with this status quo, and the problem has became more apparent thanks to my son. We are trying to raise compassionate children, and my son has made me very proud in the way that he responds to people in need. Several times now, though, he has called me out for not giving to (or just not noticing) a panhandler. On one of those occasions, we had food that we could share, and we were able to go back and do that. On other occasions, though, I struggled to articulate a coherent explanation for passing by.

I set out to learn and form a more informed and deliberate policy.

To start, I turned, of course, to Google, as well as several academic search engines. As I read the hits, it seemed that each one supported an opposite viewpoint in almost exact alternation.

On one side: Don’t give them money, because they might buy drugs or feed an unhealthy habit. Giving might discourage work. It doesn’t address the primary issues.

On the other hand: Not all panhandlers are like that, and we shouldn’t stereotype. For some, without any hope, some sort of drug use (legal or otherwise) may be their only escape from pain and suffering. Circumstances can force someone into this route, even if they might otherwise prefer working. Pope Francis recently advocated giving to them money without worry.

Academic evidence supports both views to an extent. Many panhandlers are homeless and don’t have much other recourse. Primary expenditure is food. Cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs are also major categories for how they spend their money, though.

From this reading, I started to clarify my thinking, but I also wanted to get a more personal understanding, and I resolved to stop and talk to the next panhandler that I saw. It felt as if that very resolution caused a sudden drop in citywide panhandling, because I didn’t come across anyone for several weeks after that. Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, I met Dwayne.

Dwayne was at the side of an off-ramp near my work, and so I found somewhere to park, and I walked back. I gave Dwayne fifteen dollars, and then asked if he would mind talking to me for a little while.

He told me about how he had been on the street / living in a shed the last 6 months since a falling out with the people he was staying with. He doesn’t have any family that he can rely on. Dwayne was in a motorized wheelchair, although we didn’t talk about whatever condition necessitated that. He said that he needed food, clothes, support services, money…pretty much everything.

What stuck with me the most, though, was when I asked him if there was anything that he’d want people passing by to know about him. In response, he said that he is grateful for all of them, and he says a prayer for each and every person that passes, whether they give to him or not.

After that experience, I definitely want to help, but I am still skeptical of whether direct cash giving to random strangers is the best way.

Is there a happy middle ground? How about giving food, socks, etc.? That was my previous go-to: if you’re hungry, let me buy you some food or give you this food I have. I thought that was a pretty good solution, until I read some of those articles. Some panhandlers really may need cash for bus-fare, rent, diapers, or other things that food stamps don’t cover. They may not need 5 coffees and 8 cheeseburgers. This was reinforced by my conversation with Dwayne: while food is definitely among his needs, it is far from the only one.

What about giving to a charity or pantry instead? This seems like a good possible option, although it takes some of the human connection away, and it’s easy to forget about giving after the moment has passed.

I decided to look at some of these options through a couple of lenses to help clarify my thinking.

Effective altruism, which focuses on maximizing total human well being, might say that direct may be more efficient, but probably less effective overall because it doesn’t address long term or underlying issues. Also, effective altruism might question the overall cost-efficiency of helping poor and struggling in the U.S., when the same amount might provide 10x the benefit in a third world country.

Another way to look at the decision of giving to panhandlers is using an expected value payoff table. I created a simplified one with a lot of assumptions just to look at the idea of the “do good” value of my dollar without knowing whether the recipient is going to spend it on drugs or not.

Panhandler Giving Expected Value Table

Based on this, if I want to do good, then I should always choose to give in some form. On average, giving to the charity works better, but sometimes I do get a slightly better payoff by giving directly and bypassing the overhead.

Okay, so I’ve bounced around a lot here. Let me sum up what I’ve settled on as my approach.

  1. Always acknowledge the humanity of the other person. Meet their eyes even if I am not able to share at that moment.
  2. Always consider safety. If I don’t feel comfortable pulling out money in the situation, I won’t.
  3. If safety is good, give $1 (or food, etc. if we have it) as a token gift. Even if it might not be the most cost-effective, the act builds connection and helps to support the lesson of compassion to my children.
  4. If I’m moved to give more, do it without reservation. I am going to watch out for Dwayne at the off-ramp and try to bring him some warm socks, or maybe breakfast, as the weather gets colder.

Love to you all and thank you for reading.

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1 thought on “Panhandlers – To Give or Not to Give”

  1. I love this, Adam! I have been told by many people who are homeless during stories I have done, that it hurts the most to feel invisible. Suggesting you make eye contact, smile and acknowledge them goes a long way to building them up, even when you can’t give money.

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