Five people who work with the homeless every day tell us what they think
It’s another busy day, and as you hurry along to make it to your next appointment, a disheveled man standing on the corner asks you for money. You know you should give to the poor and you’ve got a five dollar bill in your pocket — should you give it to him, or not? And how can you best help the homeless and needy people you encounter on the street?
Aleteia posed these two questions to five people who work with the homeless and needy every day. Here’s how they answered the first question. (Their answer to the second will run in a second article tomorrow.)
Should we give money directly to homeless people on the street — why or why not?
I say no! — unless and until you really know them. I’ve given money to homeless people, but only once I know them and their need. Generally, my reply to a request is, “No, I can’t spare $2, but I can give you some food and my love.” In my opinion, in casual curbside interactions it’s far too easy to “throw money” at a problem and with that absolve our guilt. That just doesn’t work. It neither solves the problem nor respects the humanity of the homeless person in need. Get to know them — yes, seriously. Ask their name. Look them in the eye. Ask them to pray for you! Once you know them and their needs — really know them as a person — then you might feel free to loan or give them money in the same way that you would help a friend. So I say no initially. Resist the quick fix.
—Steve Sarnecki, a founder of SALT, a parish-based ministry which helps the hungry, homeless, lost and lonely of Baltimore City through hands-on outreach to people on the streets
My father once told me that what you do for someone is between you and God, and what that person does with it is between him and God. However, my experience with this population has taught me a lot. The first thing that we must consider is: Is the person you encounter actually homeless or just a hustler? I have known people who hustle that way because that’s an easy way to generate some quick cash.
I have observed that addiction, mental illness and/or desperation cause those who are homeless to use the proceeds from panhandling for what they want rather than what they need. Not to say that it’s always used for things that are detrimental, but not thought about and used wisely. It’s a pretty scary thought to think that you might contribute to someone ultimately ending up in a worse situation. Which totally goes against our intentions.
—Cortez McDaniel, director of Men’s Programs and Services at The Father McKenna Center, a nonprofit social service agency in the Jesuit tradition serving the poor and homeless of Washington, DC
Go with your heart. I personally give money to people on the streets because people on the streets obviously have nothing and that is what Jesus would do if he were here. And he is here through us.
—Mary Jo Copeland, founder and director of Sharing and Caring Hands ministry, which daily serves the needs of the poor in Minneapolis, MN
Denver (where Christ in the City is based) has so many resources for those who want to get off the streets. We have a policy where we do not give out money to the homeless we encounter because it changes the nature of the relationship that we’re seeking to form. What we do seek to offer is a complete knowledge of the resources in Denver so that they can get what they need and have our accompaniment along the way.
—Phil Couture, director of formation and street ministry director with Christ in the City, a non-profit that forms people to know, love and serve the poor in Denver, CO
I was recently driving in Nashville when I came across a wheelchair-bound man begging at a traffic light. As I approached, I noticed that he was furiously trying to scratch his back, with no success. So, I pulled over, gave him a few dollars and scratched his back for him. He was very grateful, more for the scratch than for the money! Why did I do it? In that moment I felt like the Holy Spirit was directing me. Other times I might have politely declined.
I guess my point is that there is no hard and fast rule for whether to give. We should look at each individual person and make a judgment informed by love and prudence. The only rule I would suggest is that each person should be acknowledged, not ignored. I believe that ignoring the pleas of the homeless, treating them like they are inanimate objects or bothersome insects, is far more destructive than not giving them money. In the end, dignity and respect are worth more than a couple of bucks.
—Mark Gordon, president of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for the Diocese of Providence, RI
Zoe Romanowsky is lifestyle editor and video content producer for Aleteia