Society

Panhandlers, and whether to walk past or give them something

It's an age-old question, but the gospel gives pretty clear direction, says Katrina Fernandez

Dear Katrina,

Can you settle something for me? My friend and I have completely different ideas on the appropriate way to handle homeless people panhandling. I say we should give them money any time we are able to and he says we should give our money to shelters instead. He thinks giving money directly to the homeless will contribute to their drug and alcohol addictions. I think it’s un-Christian to just walk past someone in need who has their hand out, like the beggar in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Who’s right?

Rich  

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Rich, I am glad you wrote. This subject is one that I’ve talked about in the past and has been the subject of much debate among my own friends and me.

In my very strong opinion, you are in the right. It takes a special kind of indifference and lack of empathy to walk right past a person in obvious need who has their hand out for help. If someone needs help you have two choices — either you give or you don’t.

If you have to rationalize your lack of charity by assuming you know what that homeless person is going to do with their money, then you are doing charity all wrong. Giving the homeless a handout should not put you in the superior position of judgement. You give alms because you are supposed to — it’s right to care for the poor and we have a responsibility to help when asked. Charity should be given out of love for God and our fellow man. When you start adding conditions and stipulations to your charity, you’ve failed.

More to read: So, What Is the Best Way to Truly Help the Homeless?

To address your friend’s argument that the homeless may use any cash they’re given to purchase things he doesn’t approve of…  Say you gave a homeless man $5 and he takes that $5 and buys a pack of cigarettes and a 40 ounce. That’s on the homeless person, not you. At the end of his life he’ll be held accountable for his choices and you will be held accountable for yours. Either you were kind and charitable or you were stingy and suspicious.   

We’ve all heard stories about how someone gave money to a homeless man and they went straight into the liquor store. Or how someone gave a homeless person a sack lunch and they were ungrateful because they wanted cash (probably to buy drugs, they always add).  These stories are told for one reason and one reason only — I’ll say it again — to justify a lack of charity.  

Yeah, homeless people probably want cash instead of sandwiches, and so what? For a buck I can go to the bread thrift store and buy a loaf of bread that will make sandwiches for a week. Homeless people have food pantries for their sandwich needs. What they need is a little coin in their pocket so they can buy something for themselves once and awhile. I will never begrudge anyone that. Can you imagine if you were never allowed to have any money? What if your boss decided instead of paying you directly he was going to pay your salary to your debtors and if anything was left over you had to go and ask him for what you wanted and get his approval first. It’s dehumanizing to always beg, to not even be able to purchase a pack of gum for yourself if you wanted to. But for some reason your friend thinks it’s OK to put another human being in that position simply because he has a home and they do not.

More to read: What the Homeless Need Most Is You

The fact is anyone of us could end up homeless. Nearly half of all Americans are just one emergency expense away from being homeless because so many of us are living paycheck to paycheck. Some 44% of us don’t have emergency savings in the event of debilitating illness, vehicle accident, or natural disaster. Never presume to know how or why a person is living on the street. It’s an act of  presumption that is inhibiting your friend’s charity.

Donating to shelters and programs that help the homeless is a good thing, but it should never be used as a reason to avoid meeting someone else’s outstretched hand. When you give directly to the homeless it forces you to see them and interact with them as people with human dignity.

More to read: A Homeless Man Asked a Franciscan Friar to Play Him a Song. Then This Happened

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Katrina Fernandez

Katrina Fernandez  has a PhD in being single, and a master’s in single parenting with a concentration in Catholic guilt. She’s been writing about these and other life-survival topics for more than a decade. Submit all questions to katrinafixesitforyou@gmail.com