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To Give or Not To Give 26

To Give or Not To Give

Early in my career, after speaking at a hospice conference, I walked to dinner with two of my colleagues. Dale and Elliott were both psychologists and I was a social worker. On the ladder of psychological hierarchy, social work is often placed on a lower rung than psychology and psychiatry which suggests that my Ego was not up to their Superego. Whether or not this is accurate, we both appreciated and admired each other.

As we returned to our hotel, we were approached by a man who asked for money. He said, “Excuse me. I ran out of gas and don’t have a way to get home. Could you spare some money so I can buy the gas I need?”

While this might seem like a reasonable request, I had heard this exact same appeal from people in other metropolitan areas. It’s as if there is a central repository where one can acquire pre-written solicitation scripts such as “Email from Nigerian Widow” or “Your Computer Has a Virus” or “I’ve Been Hit on the Head in a Foreign Country and Lost my Passport.”

So, when this particular man quoted a familiar script about running out of gas, I became suspicious. Apparently, Dale had heard it before as well and the two of us said that we did not have any money for him. Elliott, on the other hand, pulled out five dollars and gave it to the man.

As we continued walking, I decided to ask Elliott why he had given the man money. I said, “When I was in social work school, I learned that if you give someone cash, it’s a temporary solution that also reinforces the behavior of approaching people on the streets. Plus, I wonder if he’s going to use the money for alcohol rather than gas.”

Elliott said, “Well, when I was a kid, my father told me, ‘If someone is in a position where they need to beg, who are you to judge whether they deserve it or not?’”

His comment hit me right between the eyes. I had never really thought about it like that. I was being more judgmental than compassionate. So, the experience that night made me unsure of the right way to respond to these kinds of requests. I bet you’ve had a similar experience and have been told different ways to approach the situation. I’ve heard everything from “I always give something” to “I never give anything” to “those people should get a job.”

I understand the rationale behind each of these opinions and have felt the same way at different times during my life. More recently however, I’ve been approached more frequently and decided to do some research to see what the experts had to say. I read articles by social workers, psychologists, social activists, and other professionals who work with the homeless community. Here are a few of their insights:

Support Community Organizations—One of the most effective ways of addressing the issue of homelessness and poverty is to support the organizations that are trying to eradicate these problems. A lack of jobs, adequate housing, and available transportation are common issues that these organizations are tackling. The more we support them, the more they are able to pursue effective solutions.

Make Eye Contact—One of the common responses we have to people who are homeless or who approach us for money is to ignore them. Whether it’s a concern for our safety or we’ve had an unpleasant experience in the past, we often walk right past these individuals without making eye contact. Experts say that even if we don’t give money, by making eye contact and acknowledging the individual, it allows them to maintain a bit of their dignity in the midst of a difficult situation.

Don’t Give Money—While many of the people we encounter on the streets need money, most professionals seem to agree that giving people money neither solves the underlying problem nor helps them with their immediate needs (especially if they use the money for something other than food, clothing, or shelter). Instead, however, we can provide personal care items such as toothbrushes, socks, and gloves, or give someone a gift card to a local restaurant or grocery store. These are alternatives that provide a more tangible benefit.

As a result of the information I found from the experts, I am exploring a new way to respond to people who ask for money. I purchased a few McDonald’s gift cards ($5.00 each in value), since McDonald’s restaurants are very accessible, and I give out the gift cards with information about local organizations that offer food pantries, emergency shelters, social services, etc. My hope is to provide a meal and some additional resources for people in need.

I realize this effort doesn’t solve the underlying problem of homelessness, and a Big Mac might not be the healthiest meal, but it does allow me to respond to a request, look someone in the eye, and give them something practical.

In life, we often encounter challenges that on the surface may seem unsolvable. Whether it’s homelessness, violence, or discrimination, the best way to respond is not always obvious. For me, a little research sparked an idea that may prove to be worthwhile. And if nothing else, it’s moved me from being judgmental to a bit more compassionate. Like my friend Elliott said, “If someone is in a position where they need to beg, who am I to judge whether they deserve it or not?”


  • Dan says:

    Ron, I just ran into this situation last night, and like you I declined. Beyond being judgmental of the person begging, I find that I am also trying to avoid the doubt/shame of being conned. The money for gas theme seems to be prevalent with male beggars and money for diapers prevalent with female beggars. Also, there are the street corner “homeless and hungry” beggars with signs that seem too often too familiar. I’ve seen a street corner beggar on a “break” climb into their newer model SUV. Is that their home? or is this a scam?
    It feels that my choices come down to deciding either 1) the preponderance of beggars are scams; 2) the preponderance of beggars are genuine; or 3) [most likely] it’s a mix – putting me in the position of trying to determine on the spot if the request is legitimate (and what constitutes legitimate?). It’s no wonder I tend to avoid the situation as much as I can. But I still feel bad about saying no to a person in real need, and clearly the number of homeless has been skyrocketing right along with the numbers of scams. For me, it remains a problem with no clear solution.

  • Tobi Kester says:

    I do not often give money to passersby on the street, though sometimes I try to acknowledge the human being in them by making eye contact. Most of my issues with people begging for money is in the context of the experience. I have told my children repeatedly while we are in the car that I do not support individuals or causes if people are asking for money in the middle of traffic – either between cars or in roadway medians – those narrow strips of raised concrete between directional lanes at roadway intersections…I do not think it is safe for any individual to be in the middle of traffic; not for the person asking for money, nor for the travelling public. But, I do support many people and causes if they are in safe conditions, such as at entrances to big box stores where tables can be set up, or on street sidewalks.

    I also believe that not giving every time people are asking is not necessarily being uncompassionate – I set my own rules for when and where I give, and I do not feel guilty about not giving all the time. I believe there are times and places when and where I am comfortable giving, and there are times and places when and where I am not. But, most importantly, I have consciously thought about the issue enough to have a response if someone asks me about it.

  • Kristin Arnold says:

    What a great idea, Ron! Love the idea of a McDonald’s gift card – keep ’em handy in my car with a note about the local services.

  • Gloria Surber says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful column. In the past, I have carried bags with simple food items in them to give but I like your idea better.

  • Mary Jean Hurst says:

    Loved this article and the suggested solution of gift cards. I’ve had the same thoughts and always opted to give a bit because the folks asking would certainly not be begging if they didn’t need help. The gift cards is a perfect solution and assures me that they will at least have a meal. And suggesting that we look the individual in the eye is so common sensical and humane, though I suspect many of us never thought of that either–I didn’t! Thank you!

  • Rita says:

    Another wonderful blog.

  • Schelly says:

    Bravo, Ron! This is surely a difficult topic and I have often been conflicted, especially on public transportation, with frequent-flyer requests of the same people. In the past, if I had a buck or two, it might have found its way out of my pocket. But as a woman, I make a point of never opening a purse out in public, no matter the cause. I have given granola bars, public transportation tokens (more valuable than a buck!) and small denomination gift cards to Dunkin Donuts. I contemplate the homeless situation often, and sometimes I feel downright awful not being able to help. I do try to treat people with dignity–after all, everyone out there has a story

  • Denise Smith says:

    Thank you, Ron, for addressing this topic. I am like Elliott. If someone asks me for something, I give. I usually keep dollars and granola bars with me when I travel. I like your idea of gift cards and will consider giving them along with a little note to let the person know that they are important and God created them for a purpose. They are human beings, in tough situations. It is not my place to judge them. It is my place to give – whether that be money, granola bars or a Big Mac.

  • Marcus Goff Jones says:

    Ron: I admire your approach to this issue that many of us often experience. Loving compassion is always the answer.

  • Betty Rae HIter says:

    Who are we to judge anyone? But you do sometimes have to judge as a survival tool. The hard part is remembering to use the judgement for survival only. Everyone is carrying one or more burdens, some heavier then others. This is a quote I try to remember: “Be kinder than necessary, as everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.

  • Jay Glick says:

    Thank you, Ron, for thinking deeply about this issue and commenting thoughtfully, and sharing it on your post. I like a lot of your essays, but this is probably my favorite one yet because it is such a common occurrence that I struggle with internally nearly every day, and often have no clear idea what to do. You have given me a gift. I intend to share this with others as well. Thank you again! J

  • Valerie A says:

    Great article, Ron. I had a man approach me at a gas station asking for money. I said, ” I don’t have cash but I will be happy to put some gas in your car.” He agreed and I put a few gallons in his tank. It felt good knowing that perhaps he really was stuck without his wallet and needed gas! I have been in that situation and was desperate and scared and felt very low literally having to ask for money for gas simply because I left my wallet at home! Guess what! No one helped me! No one made eye contact! I will now gladly help by giving tangible items. If they refuse, then I know it was probably a scam.

  • Gwen Volk says:

    Ron- this one could not have been more timely. Last weekend I was in Ft. Worth for my husband’s medical convention. While he was in “school” I was sightseeing. Across the street from my hotel was a beautiful and unique place called the “Ft Worth Water Gardens”. It was fabulous and covered a huge area. Because it was shady and had numerous sources of water from running troughs at shoulder level to a “quiet pool” to an aerated pool to “wall fountains” everywhere to a mountain made of concrete block, it was a perfect spot for the homeless to hang out and hang out they did – not to the point where you had to step over them, but they were there, cooling their legs in a pool, filling water bottles from the troughs, resting, and so on. None of them approached me but it made me sad. Later I visited the JFK Tribute which is nearby. While I was there a homeless man approached me when I was cooling off behind the memorial area. He said, “Ma’am – may I speak to you? I won’t come any closer . . I need some money for something to eat.” Well, I told him I didn’t have any money – which was a lie – for the same reasons you gave above. But that “I won’t come any closer” hit me between the eyes. He was an older African American man and I wondered if he thought that would make him a perceived threat to me and I felt terrible and guilty and like a bad person. And in response to what the man who gave money said, let me add that I had a good friend whose step kids struggled with addiction. He sometimes gave them money. I heard him say one time that if you give someone money, it has to be “for fun and for free” – no expectations and no monitoring or comments after it leaves your hands. I always liked that. This is a very tough subject. Thanks for opening it up. I am going to consider your suggestions. But really, I wish I had given him something at the time – for fun and for free.

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