My fingers clench and my mind races as I approach. Sometimes the story is a drawn out tragedy, other times it is told fully in the flash of pleading eyes. It is always the same: “Can you help me?”
In Malawi, someone on the street asks for money about every other day. I still leave each of these interactions feeling guilty and bewildered. I feel guilty when I refuse people, and I feel guilty when I give, knowing I haven’t given anything that can change their future. I walk away with a deep sense of confusion and frustration. I’ve written about it before.
Out of this confusion I wrote to five wise friends to ask them a hard question: “What do you do when people ask you for money on the street?”. I limited their answers to 150 words, which is far too few for such a question, but from each reply I got a fresh perspective into what it means to truly be generous.
My friend Anneke is a schoolteacher working in Memphis, Tennessee. I loved her response because her questions echo my own:
This past weekend I went to New Orleans, and passed people asking for money with signs/requests such as:
“Give me money or I will vote for Trump.”
“I need money to buy crack!”
“Need money for weed and feed.”
These brought up the worst thoughts we all have when we see people begging for money: Are they actually homeless? Are they trying to help themselves? Will they just spend it on alcohol and drugs? I can’t give you a catch-all answer. But here’s what I do:
- My husband and I invest in change we know will last: sponsoring a Compassion Child, and supporting organizations that help with homelessness and addiction in America.
- I make sandwiches at church once a month for a downtown homeless outreach.
- I bought Christmas presents for a family who comes to my church’s food pantry.
- Sometime in July an older women and young girl came up to me outside of an ice cream shop. The woman asked for money for bus fare, so they could get home. I gave her the money.
- When I was in Chicago over Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I felt tremendously guilty about walking past all the homeless people. I told my mom this, and she told me to pick one person to help. So I gave one guy $20. And I have no idea what he spent it on.
That said, I just drive past the people on street corners. You drive everywhere in Memphis, so I drive past people asking for money instead of walking past them, and that makes it easier in a terrible way. I want to recognize their humanity without giving them money by instead donating to an organization that is designed to help people in situations like theirs.
If you know Anneke and her husband David, you know that these words are weighted with the sacrifices they’ve made for the community they’ve adopted. Anneke’s stories highlight the complexities of engaging with people living at the margins. Very often, giving to people on the street becomes about alleviating guilt instead of poverty, and Anneke reminds us that there are more sustainable and effective uses for my money. Simply put, there are better ways to help.
My friend Kaitlin, a fellow development student, addresses Anneke’s concerns head on with a more philosophical approach. What struck me about Kaitlin’s response is that she started by putting herself into the shoes of someone on the street:
I can’t really answer this question straight without feeling guilty. Instead, I’ll ask: “What makes us refuse to give money?” I often hear mumblings about drug addictions in response. Two questions: First, can we assume this without first understanding the context of this person’s life? If we don’t have enough time to get to know the person, whether drugs are involved, or whether the money goes to food or a baby, then not giving does greater harm.
Second, if drugs are involved, how can we judge them for it? How many of ‘us’, people with ‘normal’ jobs, do drugs? Nobody questions where we get the money for it, so why do we do that for panhandlers? Of course it is better to invest in a system that will help people get on their feet, but assuming any ‘system’ will produce utopian results is not wise – there will always be people at the edge of the crowd, and even before money, those people need others to simply acknowledge their existence.
You can read Kaitlin’s full response here. Her core message is that systems will always leave people at the margins, while people have the ability to acknowledge and give dignity to each other. My friend Nathan concluded similarly. Another development student who grew up
next door to Drake in Toronto, Nathan argues that the best thing we can offer is trust:
“I think what I do when I see people asking for money is, if possible, I give it to them. Simple as that. I give them what I can, usually coinage. In my experience (more personal than anything) is that when someone is in need, what they need is practical help, monetary or otherwise, and all they need is for someone to trust them enough to give that to them. And it’s as simple to me as that, forgetting all other issues like dependency and whatnot. Because I know what it’s like to not have enough.”
Where Anneke struggled to recognize common humanity, Nathan grounds his giving in empathy. He concludes that given the complexity of people’s reality, it is better to err on the side of generosity.
I was expecting to have this principle reinforced by my friend Ryan, who is so committed to empathizing with the poor that he moved to Manilla to live and work in a slum. But his response was the opposite of what I expected:
To be boring and honest, I usually just ignore people who ask me for money on the street. However, I admit that this belief often becomes an excuse. I say to myself, “That beggar won’t be helped by my money, so I’ll keep it for myself.” Instead of saying, “I won’t be helped by the $5 in my pocket, I might as well give it to this beggar.”
This question gets a hundred times harder to answer when that person asking for money is my friend and neighbour. Now my sense of responsibility to be generous is increased, but so is the danger of hurting the relationship. I don’t want to create a dependence relationship, so I still usually say “No” to people who ask, even though it’s hard…but it doesn’t stop there. I want to be a friend who listens, spends time and cares. So I try to give (money, food, hospitality) in such a way that says: “This is a gift because I love you. You don’t owe me anything because I am honouring the relationship we already have.”
Ryan foregrounds the thread that has been running through each of these answers. One way or another, we need a response which shows shared humanity and gives dignity. We can give money, and we can give more than that. We can also give elsewhere. The key is that we are motivated by love for someone who is just like us, not fear or guilt of someone who is other. This tension is so well-captured in my friend Hikari’s words, which have become the prayer that I want to carry with me:
I don’t want to walk away or forget. When a person begs for money, they’re sharing their vulnerability with me and I, a human just like them, should also be vulnerable. If a person asks for money, I would want to share a meal, spend time, give them the money I have or just do all three. I can’t discern perfectly of what this person will do or what the outcome of my actions will be, but the fact that we cross paths has a meaning. The best thing I can do is pray that God will give me wisdom and trust in all of this. Jesus is the epitome of selflessness, and while I struggle to be like him, I believe that once I start thinking of myself less, I will be able to face people full on instead of shying away and letting them become a forgotten memory.
What do you do in this situation? I would love to continue the conversation, so please comment! Also, if you’re looking for a ‘Yes, but how?’ Ryan also pointed me to this wonderfully practical article.
A special thanks to this amazing group of people who took time and effort to share a piece of themselves with me.