One rainy afternoon in Philly, after departing from a lunch meeting with a colleague, a woman approached me as I turned towards Lancaster Walk. The woman was worn, disheveled, obviously in need. I braced myself for her request:
“S’cuse me, Ma’am. I’m 4 months pregnant and I’m hungry. Can I get some money for a sandwich?”
I looked back at the 7-11 on the corner, and proceeded to make her an offer:
“Well, there’s a 7-11 on the corner. I’d be happy to walk over there with you and get you a sandwich.”
The woman hesitated:
“Well, I wanted to go to 30th street station so I can get out of the rain.” she said.
“You can get the sandwich to go, and still eat at the station.” I proposed.
“Well, see, I wanted to go to the Au Bon Pain in the station. I like their sandwiches.”
I stood back, unable to hide my amusement. I raised a brow at the woman and said:
“Good luck with that.” I turned and continued down Lancaster Walk.
Long before the battle of West Philly Crackheads vs. my ’98 Corolla began, long before the days of getting cuss out by Chicago vagrants (I once offered a homeless dude a dollar after he asked for 87 cents. He told me to fornicate with myself), I shrugged off sidewalk pseudo-philanthropy as a mere trap of middle-class privilege-driven guilt, and reasoned that I was doing homeless people more harm than good if I gave them money. Still, I would give homeless people money at times.
That was before I went to Ghana, West Africa in June 2008.
I’ll start by saying that Ghana is the most spiritually rich place I’ve ever been. The people there have an openness and commitment to hospitality that is genuine and startling. God is everywhere and everything, and even people in the most desperate of situations know that He has a plan for their lives, and they are grateful. Ghana is also like many developing countries, in that social services are not on par with need. I saw no homeless shelters, soup kitchens or other services for street citizens there. What I did see was real hunger, and real determination. People there asked me for money, but it was often in exchange for something, such as a handmade bracelet.
I got hustled of course, but at least the hustles were creative. While staying in Tamale, a group of young boys from a neighboring village asked me for money for a soccer ball, since their team didn’t have one to practice with. I gave them a Ghanaian dollar. The next day, when my group visited their village, every other young man had the same story: Soccer team needs money for a ball. Why a village with less than 500 people had so many soccer teams is beyond my understanding. It made me think back to the boys who stood at the intersection of 87th and the Dan Ryan Expressway back home, raising money for their baseball uniforms. I didn’t fault them for their underhandedness because they were truly trying to survive.
Of course there are people who are homeless in America that are not drug addicts, and are in real need, I know that. I also know that the social services we offer to homeless people in the U.S. have their downsides . But here are some unspoken facts about homeless in America:
- Panhandlers make serious tax-free cash: Paul Michael from Wisebread.com wrote a fabulous article about the upsides to living on the street. Some panhandlers make hundreds of dollars a day, tax free. This isn’t hard to believe when you think about how many people pass the average panhandler in a given day, and how many people give them at least a dollar or some change.
- Giving money to panhandlers doesn’t address the root of the problem:
- Best case scenario: Pregnant homeless woman asks me for a dollar. I give her a dollar. She asks the next person for a dollar, and they give her one as well. Pretty soon, she has enough for a meal. She gets a meal. She eats it. Then she’s back to square one.
- Worst case scenario: Pregnant homeless woman asks me for a dollar. I give her a dollar. She gets enough people to give her a dollar until she has enough for a dime bag. She buys a dime bag, and a sandwich, if she has enough money left.
The problem with both of these situations is that the woman is not getting help that will get her off the streets for good. She’s not getting help with her addiction, health, job training or housing assistance. There are agencies and charities that provide services like this, and my money would go farther if given to them.
- Giving money to panhandlers absolves us of our role in the problem: Our society is based on a system of power and privilege. Because of this, as hard as it is to face, the fact that someone doesn’t have a place to live or means to support themselves is directly related to the fact that I do. We’re all interconnected. This also means that I am responsible for thinking of way to become a part of the solution, not the problem.
So, what are some potential solutions?
- Volunteer time and money at a local charity/agency that helps the homeless. Not just money, but time is important. Many homeless people are looking for services and people that allow them to receive help while maintaining their dignity, such as the Living Room Cafe in Chicago, IL.
- If a homeless person asks you for help, engage them. Don’t just hand over your money. Ask them questions. Ask them what they need to help themselves. A woman once asked me for money to get on the train, so I gave her my weekly pass. She was so moved that she hugged me, because she got what she was actually looking for.
So don’t give into guilt when a panhandler asks you for money. Think of your role in the larger problem of poverty and homelessness. Find comfort in the fact that you have committed to acting in a way that will help that person, and people like them, in the long run.