Panhandlers: To give or not to give?

A friend of mine who had lived many years on the streets prior to entering the shelter once asked me “What is the definition of insanity?”  I was not sure what she was getting at, so she enlightened me saying, “Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  She then went on to explain that she would sit on the same corner begging for money day after day, eat at the local soup kitchen, and then take the money and buy drugs and get high night after night; all the while praying for release from her addiction.  She was enslaved to heroin and day after day, well meaning travelers paid to keep her in bondage.

I am not suggesting that every panhandler is an addict nor is every panhandler homeless.  Some are truly in need, some mentally ill, and others simply making a living the only way they know how.  It is impossible to know someone’s full story while flying past them at 35 miles an hour.  However, I refuse to allow my ignorance of the truth become an instrument of destruction in someone’s life.  For this reason, I am against giving money to panhandlers when there is no personal relationship.

So, what is a compassionate response to panhandling?  Prayer and a smile are a good start.  However, God often uses people to answer prayers and I believe God would have us do more.   Homeward is the coordinating agency for homeless services in the city of Richmond.  They have been running an anti-panhandling campaign called “Real Change Not Spare Change,” and they offer some sound advice.

On the Homeward website, you will find a “street sheet.” The street sheet is a listing of emergency services providers in the city of Richmond including feeding sites, shelters and social services.  You will also find a special card that can be given to those in need which has feeding sites as well as bus ticket funds.  It is Homeward’s desire, as well as the rest of the homeless service providers and the local police, that people would give out the street sheets and the cards instead of cash.  Each of the homeless services providers listed on the card and street sheet, work to try to get people real help.  Help that will not keep them on the street corner but break them free of that insanity.

Some may ask, “Is it a matter of the person on the corner not knowing where to get food?”  The answer is, “Probably not.”  However, when they are ready, they will have the information they need to get the help.   I have had many addicts share that until they hit rock bottom and were willing to change, nothing anyone said or did would make any difference.  If someone is unwilling to seek help, the only thing we can do is help to keep them safe and healthy until God moves them to do more.  I think Homeward offers us a very practical place to start.  However, there is much more we can do.

In the coming weeks, I am going to be a part of a number of conversations about how to more humanely respond to the needs of the most vulnerable residents in our city starting with a Faith Leaders Forum on the closing of Monroe Park on November 4th.  Monroe park is home to many homeless and at-risk individuals and it is being closed by the city for renovation in the near future.  Those who want to help insure that services are available to those who depend on the services currently offered in the park are invited to attend this forum.  For more information you can email me at

I will also be participating in the November 18th , Richmond Hill’s Clergy Convocation, which is a conversation for clergy and other people of faith around the needs facing our city. In addition, I am going to be a presenter at the Governor’s Housing Conference which is also on November 18th. (still trying to figure out who to be in two places at once.)  I hope you will follow these conversations through this blog, or join me at these events as we seek to address some tough issues facing  our community.

So, what do you think, should you give money to panhandlers?  If not, what should Christians do to address the needs of those who make their home and/or living on our cities streets?


Filed under missional church, Stories from the Street, Unity Works Reading, Urban Ministry

7 responses to “Panhandlers: To give or not to give?

  1. Elizabeth

    We don’t give money, but we’ve started picking up extra boxes of granola bars to keep in the car. It’s very difficult to reasonably explain to our young children why we are ignoring people who are asking for food. We live in the city and see some of the same folks at the same corners each day, and our older child is noticing this. A woman just this morning seemed annoyed by our granola bars but also did not reject them. At times I wonder what that exchange opens or closes in me. If I close myself off to an exchange with these neighbors, what else might I be missing?

  2. As I left church earlier today, I drove through an intersection that had a needy person on each corner. The one closest to me had a sign that said” Please help. Cannot find job.” I chuckled and said to myself “Neither can I.” There are so many needy people, with the economy like it is, it seems like there’s no one even able to help. I don’t know what the answer is for these people but God does.

  3. wmccaig

    Elizabeth, I like the granola bar idea. I have had some folks suggest McDonald’s cards…granola sounds like a much healthier option.

    Giantoaktree, Things are changing a lot with so many folks out of work. Many organizations like us, Boaz and Ruth, CARITAS and many others are putting a lot of attention in the direction of employment. We have to encourage folks not to give up but connect with services to help them get a job. Not an easy task but the only sustainable answer. I pray your job search is successful.

  4. HLBradley

    A few weeks ago, on my way to work, I felt God prompt me to stop and speak with a man at an intersection. His sign said, unemployed please help. I found out his name and that he was living in his car and unable to find work. When I saw him next time, I gave him phone numbers of places that could help him. He was amazed that I bothered to do that for him. I was amazed at his thankful attitude.
    Since then I ordered a supply of the cards from Homeward with the phone numbers and bus ticket. I am glad to have them on hand.

    • wmccaig

      That is a wonderful story! I pray that your employment leads work out for him but you obviously blessed him by making personal contact and by remembering him. Thanks for sharing. You may also be interested to know that CARITAS is starting a new employment program in the next few months called CARITAS works which is very exciting. Their hope is to connect with folks like you who are willing to help our friends find jobs. Your post was a real blessing to me. I have been praying more Christians would see the deeper needs and respond the way you did.

  5. Steph Rice

    As I commented on a previous post, I never really know what to do when I come across panhandlers. I don’t want to give money for fear it will be used to further harm people, but I feel horrible for not doing something. You’re suggestion of taking a friend who can get a conversation started is a great idea, Wendy. I want to find out who these people are, what their needs are and how I can help them. I know what its like to be desperate for money, I was just lucky enough to have people in my life that would help.

    I was fortunate in college to have a chance to ride along with an officer from the HOPE unit, which works to help the homeless in Richmond. I met several homeless and at-risk people who had compelling stories and really just needed people to be there for them and show that they cared. I hope that soon I will be able to make something happen and form a relationship with the people I drive by everyday. The Homeward cards sound like a great idea that I will definitely check out.

  6. Deanna

    We live in a rural area in MN, so I don’t see people living in tents and under bridges ‘right here’. I know there are many all over though. There have been times when I’ve bought lunch for those I have seen here and there with signs. I have helped where I could, although we don’t have money either. We are blessed with a massive garden, and when the harvest comes in, we give alot away. We also have 6 adult married kids with families that we try to help out. My husband has worked for 27 years, and the threat of lay off is right there all the time. We just try to do what we can when we can.

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