When I give a talk about homelessness, I am often asked, “Should I give to a panhandler?” The following “rules” have emerged from personal experience with giving, talks with panhandlers, and some knowledge about homelessness.
1. Give or don’t give. It is really your choice. But always look the person in the eye who is asking, and say “Hi” and then maybe add, “Sorry I can’t help today” OR “Here you go.” Always treat the person with respect.
2. If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants to do.
3. If you don’t give that is ok. Panhandlers expect most people not to give. One said to me, “It’s like cold calling in sales. I expect to get turned down most of the time and it doesn’t bother me. Just treat me with respect.” (See Rule #1 above).
4. If you feel unsafe or the person is being aggressive or threatening, leave the area and don’t give. As one said to me, “There are assholes in every line of life. Don’t reward them.”
5. Sometimes give more than you are being asked for. So, if someone asks for a dollar give them five… just for fun!
6. Set a limit or a boundary to your giving. Mine is $5 per day. Once I’ve given out my $5 then I respond to anyone who asks, “I’ve given out already what I give each day.” I consider this my “street tax.”
7. There are people out there who aren’t homeless who panhandle. They are simply poor. So, again, give if you want, or don’t if you don’t want to, but treat everyone with respect. (See Rule #1 above).
8. Feeling awkward or uncomfortable when you see a panhandler is ok. It means you have a conscience and some compassion.
9. If you have time, and are so inclined, volunteer with an organization that works with people on the streets offering food, or shelter, or medical care etc. You’ll get to know some really interesting people, and they’ll get to know you. And you might just see them on the streets from time to time, and you can wave and yell “Hi!”
10. If you really want to help people who are housing deprived, then advocate for housing for all homeless people. Support organizations in your area that practice a “housing first” approach to homelessness. Also resist all efforts to dehumanize, disrespect, and criminalize people who are on the streets with laws like “No panhandling.” (See Rule #1 above).
Peter Gathje is a R3 Contributor
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