People often ask me, “Should I give money to people who are panhandling?”
The urge to give is a good one. Please feel proud of your desire to give. Generosity starts with the heart, and the desire to give reflects one of our greatest human values – compassion (literally “to feel with” another).
But as a person of good heart, I am sure you often ask yourself, “What is the best way to be generous?”
To give someone money on the street is ultimately a personal decision with pros and cons to whichever choice you make.
On the “pro” side, you are giving directly to a person, which might feel more immediate and powerful to you. Your gift might also help that person purchase something that is not easily or abundantly available through the services in the community: clothing, bus tickets, gas, medication, or even a meal out. Keeping those who are panhandling visible also helps remind us that poverty exists, something that some in our society are keen to forget.
It’s important to remember that panhandling is a legal activity, which has been protected as a form of free speech. There are, however, certain ways of panhandling that are not legal, including following a person, asking for money after dark, or soliciting near a bank or ATM.
On the “con” side, your money could be used to purchase something you don’t want the recipient of your money to buy, such as alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. Some people claim that giving to panhandlers “attracts” unwanted behavior and may lead to aggressive and illegal forms of panhandling. And sadly, not everyone who panhandles is truly in need, so it’s possible that you could give money to someone who may not be representing themselves honestly.
Ultimately, to give or not to give is your decision. Personally, I recommend that you give to organizations, like Shalom Community Center, so you can be sure that your money will go to essential services for people in need.
If you do feel a strong need to give directly to someone, I encourage you to buy him or her a sandwich or a cup of coffee or that you carry around some bus tickets to hand out.
And if you decide against giving money to people who are panhandling, you can still offer a smile and a kind and gentle “no” to their request.
Lastly, it’s sad to say but I do advise that you call the police if someone is being aggressive or hostile with you on the streets. I know that’s a hard thing to do, but we all have a right to be safe.
To contribute to Shalom, please mail in a gift to PO Box 451, Bloomington, IN 47402-0451 or donate online at www.shalomcommunitycenter.org.