Over at Everyday Feminism, Sara Whitestone wrote an excellent piece addressing how best to respond to panhandling, a sadly common experience in our daily lives that is usually met with indifference, discomfort, and sometimes even hostility.
For those seeking a more constructive and compassionate approach to panhandlers, the article is well worth reading in full. I personally found the following bit of advice to be especially worth highlighting, not least because it echos some of my own sentiments over the years:
While many people, homeless or not, are struggling with addictions, we shouldn’t police where our money goes if we give it away.
When we give our dollars directly to these people, we are empowering them to make a choice, and we have to trust that they will make the best choice for themselves while they live in these extreme conditions.
Unless we have experienced the same circumstances, we cannot judge or assume we know what’s best for their situation.
For example, a person who has experienced homelessness shared with me that drinking a bottle of wine was enough to make them feel warm enough to sleep through another freezing winter night outside.
It’s not ideal (ideally, they would have access to warmer clothes — or, you know, a home), but it’s what they could afford and it helped them survive. We have no right to judge that.
There are also a number of things that services for those experiencing homelessness can’t provide.
Shelters, food pantries, and local support groups alone can’t provide things like flashlight batteries or cell phone minutes, for example. Your money could very well be going toward these necessary items.
If you are able to help financially, but still don’t want to give your money to them directly, you could ask what they specifically need and see if you could help provide that.
Consider purchasing gift cards to restaurants nearby or keeping a few Ziploc bags full of things like toiletries and snacks in your car for these occasions.
Depending on where you live, you might see the same individuals every day. If you feel comfortable enough, maybe invite them to join you for a meal somewhere. It’s okay to establish a relationship, even if you can’t give your time or money every day.
Remember that it’s okay to say “no”, too. But if you are able and feel called to give someone panhandling money, then give.
It is easy to do some good in the world when we are mindful of the humanity of the underprivileged and the complexities and nuances of their circumstances. A little bit of empathy and compassion, combined with practical and logical considerations, can go a long way. Every gesture of goodwill and kindness — a pleasant greeting or a little something to eat — can have an outsized impact on the lives of others.