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Homeless People: You Want to Help But How Should You?



Pam Bailey - published on 01/15/15 - updated on 06/07/17

Here's how to do more than just "Walk on By"

If you see me walkin’ down the street
And I start to cry each time we meet
Walk on by, walk on by
Make believe that you don’t see the tears
Just let me grieve in private ’cause each time I see you
I break down and cry, I cry
– Dionne Warwick

When I first began working in downtown DC two years ago, the homeless on the streets suddenly became very real to me. My previous jobs in the more affluent suburbs had ensconced me in a cocoon of sorts. Out of sight, out of mind.

But now they were so very visible — the homeless and the panhandlers (and many who were both). And I began to have an internal conversation with myself: Do I just walk by fast and ignore them? Do I put a dollar in their cups? But if I do that, I can’t do it every day. So then what?

Chances are, you too walk by them on the way to the office or when running errands. You see them with their cup out at major intersections and by the metro station. Or they may be slumped on park benches or under bridges and underpasses.

Then again, perhaps not. Maybe you have stopped noticing them because they are so common they blend into the "landscape" — or because we all tend to block images that make us feel uncomfortable.

However, in light of the numbers recently reported by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, they will be hard to overlook as the cold temperatures of winter set in. The HUD report found that on the night its measurement took place, 578,424 people were homeless in America. Although that represents an 11 percent decline overall since 2007, the homeless population has continued to climb in many areas — including North Dakota (98 percent), South Dakota (53 percent), Vermont (51 percent) and DC (45.6 percent).

Great debate: Drop Money in that Cup?

According to Michael Stoops, community organizer for the National Coalition for the Homeless, "the single most frequent question we get when we speak at events is, ‘What do I do when I’m approached on the street?’ "

Some professionals in the field say unequivocally that doling out money to people who beg on the streets is not a good use of your funds — and doesn’t do much for panhandlers either.

"The simple truth is that giving cash to panhandlers doesn’t help," a page on the website for Montgomery County, MD, flatly states. "Those who work daily with panhandlers in homeless advocacy and other social service groups know that most panhandlers use the money they collect to support their addictions — drugs, alcohol and tobacco. None of that helps panhandlers to solve their problems."

The website adds that despite appearances, many panhandlers are not homeless. The US Department of Justice agrees, warning that "(panhandlers’) sales pitches are usually, if not always, fraudulent in some respect." However, at least some data contradict those negative claims. A 2013 survey of people begging for money in San Francisco concluded that 82 percent were indeed lacking a place to call home. The survey also found that 60 percent collected less than $25 a day and 94 percent used the money for food. Fewer than half (44 percent) spent any of the money on alcohol or illicit drugs.

Stoops says he typically does not give money to beggars, because "I don’t know what they will do with it." And, as Jake Maguire from the organization 100,000 Homes observes, "no matter what you give, it won’t be enough to help in the long term."

My own experience with giving money serves as a cautionary case in point — especially if you decide, like me, to take the time to learn a few of these stories and get "pulled in."

Many of the chronic homeless are like Sam and Roxanne, a couple who begs for money every morning by my Metro stop. Sam is a Vietnam veteran who has been in and out of VA programs for years, and when he is on the streets, he treats the voices in his head that urge suicide with various substances. His problems are complex and overlapping, and giving the couple money to help with one immediate need only seems to lead to another. It wasn’t long before I became their "go-to" rescuer — and not only does that exceed my budget, it also isn’t helping them change their situation. What they really need is an outreach team and case manager who won’t just tell them to come back after Sam replaces his lost ID. And even 

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