Dear Homeless Hub,
I always hear mixed responses to whether you should give homeless people money on the street. Some say it only fuels addiction. What's the best way in your day to day life to help the homeless?
This is a question that I was asked a lot when I was teaching the “Homelessness in Canadian Society” course at Ryerson University. My answer was always the same “It’s your choice, but have the decency to look someone in the eye and acknowledge them.”
That sounds simple, but the fact is, many people who are panhandling are routinely ignored, sworn at, harassed, robbed and assaulted. Having someone look them in the eye and recognize them as a person can be very affirming.
Personally, I don’t give money frequently, but I do on occasion. Living in a big urban environment means that a walk downtown could result in several encounters with people who are panhandling. I also prefer not to pull my wallet out in the middle of the street – not for fear of the panhandler, but rather of an opportunistic purse thief – so it will depend if I have change in my pocket.
What I tell my students, going back to the question of “should I give money?” is that it really is a choice that you need to make for yourself. However, if you choose to give someone money, what that money gets spent on is no longer in your control. When I give a server a tip at a restaurant I don’t get to dictate that they should only buy food or pay for housing with it. The money is theirs and the spending choice is theirs.
If you’re worried about the money going to alcohol or drugs there are a few options:
- Give the money to an organization working with people experiencing homelessness.
- Buy a street newspaper.
- Buy a small gift card – i.e. for a local coffee shop or fast food restaurant.
- Use the money to donate food to a food bank.
Buying food instead of giving money is something that a lot of people ask about and it is going to come down to choice for the panhandler again. I’m the world’s pickiest eater; I would have a hard time trusting that the food someone hands me on the street is safe, edible and something I will like. Most of us like to have the ability to choose what we want to eat and when we want to eat it. Giving a panhandler a coffee instead of cash may be your preference, but if it’s the fifth coffee they’ve been handed in 20 minutes, they may well refuse it.
Part of the Ryerson course includes an organized – and safely conducted – opportunity for students to experience panhandling themselves. (The money is donated to an agency working on the issue of homelessness or students can choose to give the money directly to someone who is panhandling.)
I asked some past students about their experience:
Shannon Kaloczi said that while it hasn’t changed the amount she gives people it has affected how she treats panhandlers.
Before [the course] I think I was naive as to how hard panhandling can be, and now I never pass by without at least a smile. When [the instructor] sent us out, that was the hardest part, being disregarded and looked at as if we were nothing, so now I try not to make others feel the same way.
Emerald Lacaille had a similar experience. She says:
I think the biggest difference since I took the course is that I treat people differently than I did before. I smile, say hello, and do what I can to help, when the opportunity arises, and if I feel safe. I see those experiencing homelessness as community members versus "the other". I treat them as I would anyone else I encounter on the street. I don't think one person can help everyone, but I think everyone can help at least one person.
Stephanie Teppo’s feelings are also similar.
I still give money or food as I have always had. I always give what I can and what I feel comfortable with. What has changed was I am more comfortable to engage and interact with the person. Everyone has a story. If they want to share their story with me, I am happy to listen.
Some background on panhandling:
A 2002 report “Income and Spending Patterns Among Panhandlers” in the Canadian Medical Association Journal shared results from interviews with 54 panhandlers in Toronto. They found that while all had been homeless at some point in their life only 65% were currently homeless. 24% had their own room or apartment but needed to panhandle to gain additional income.
It also found that “their single largest reported expense was food” and that “for the one-fourth of panhandlers who rent a room or apartment, however, any loss of income could easily lead to homelessness.”
A research report a few years ago from the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg titled "Does Panhandling Provide a Living?" focused on panhandlers in Winnipeg. It found that “Of those who estimated their daily panhandling earnings, 40% reported making between ten and thirty dollars per day, while 38% said they earned more than thirty dollars daily. Only 22% reported making more than fifty dollars per day.”
A very telling comment from that report stated, “When asked the question “What if panhandling just wasn’t an option?” 27% did not have any answer. They seemed to be at a complete loss. Another 17.5% said that they wouldn’t be able to do anything and/or they would go hungry. This suggests that for almost half of the interviewees, panhandling is their final option or last resort.”
Panhandling is also an area of intense criminalization of poverty and homelessness. In “The Expressive Liberty of Beggars: Why it matters to them, and to us”, a report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the issue of panhandling being a sign of someone being at wit’s end is mentioned: “It is morally perplexing that in 21st century Canada it could be a punishable offence for one person to say to another, peacefully, in a public place, 'I’m in trouble and need help.' Yet that is the effect of City of Winnipeg Bylaw No. 128/2005.1. Other Canadian and American cities have enacted similar legislation, and a fast-growing body of jurisprudence in both Canada and America testifies to the fact that the criminalization of panhandling has become a kind of battleground. On this battleground, a clash occurs between competing values: social 'hygiene' vs. freedom of expression; middle class discomfort vs. un-derclass economic need; commercial interest of downtown business owners vs. beggars’ right to plead for subsistence.”
For further reading and information on panhandling check out the Hub’s topic : Panhandling, Busking and Squeegeeing.