Homelessness Part I – Why I Don’t Give Money to Homeless Folks

A couple weeks ago I listened to a podcast from a fellow who mentioned that he always gives money to homeless people when he has money to give them. It got me thinking, because I’m the opposite and rarely ever give to the homeless.

This turned out to be a humongous post that goes in a couple different directions. For that reason, I’ve decided to split it up. For this week, I’m gonna tell you why I usually don’t give money to homeless people. It will probably offend you, but hopefully not so much that you don’t come back next week. Because next week’s post is going to blow you away.

Next week, I’m going to tell you about three different homeless people with whom I’ve spoken over the past years. You might be very surprised, as I was, by what they have to say.

But first, this week’s post, which I don’t think is going to make me many friends amongst the bleeding hearts out there, but fuck it. This is how I roll.

Why I don’t give money to homeless people

1. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it.

What someone does with their money is their business. If they work 40 hours a week and want to buy a bunch of shovels every payday, cool. If they want to buy alcohol and drink themselves silly, that’s their right as well. America, baby.

But when I give others my money, it then sort of becomes my business, and I don’t know where my “donated” money is going. I don’t do drugs. I hardly ever drink alcohol and when I do, it is not to the point where I am walking through plate glass windows. I don’t support intolerant alcohol abuse or street drugs. That’s it. Case closed.

If I give my money to a homeless person it might very well go to drugs. That means I’m an indirect supporter of drug use and/or drug dealing and/or other illegal things. Sorry, I’m not playing.

And yes, I know not all homeless people do drugs and drink. But it’s often fairly obvious which ones do, and lots of others are iffy. I refuse to support that scene with even a dime and wish to err on the side of caution.

2. I don’t like being duped

When I moved to Seattle in 2000, there was a homeless fellow outside one of the big movie theaters downtown. He had a gas can in his hand and said he’d run out of gas and needed to get back to his family. He looked fairly clean and tidy and I guessed he wasn’t going to go boozing with it and gave him some money.

Now it’s 2011 and guess where this guy is? Outside the same movie theater, with the same empty gas canister. I know gas is expensive, but 11 years to fill a gas tank? Basically, he’s making a living by lying. For politicians, this would probably earn a second term (ouch), but I’m not gonna donate to that particular cause.

3. Do they really need it?

When I lived in Portland, I used to daily walk by a bunch of young kids along the park blocks who looked like they were in need. I’d pick one or two and give them some change on a fairly regular basis. And this was a time for me that was quite lean. I wasn’t doing well financially…not at all.

A little bit later, a local paper ran a story and I saw this same group of kids pictured. Turns out these weren’t street urchins at all, but rather kids from a rich suburb of Portland. These were private school kids who were very well off and very well taken care of. And they were in the park panhandling partly as a goof, partly in rebellion to their folks.

So, at a time when I actually really needed my own money, I was giving it up to some kids who were using me for a science experiment.

4. It’s criminal exchange

NO, I’m not calling homeless people criminals. I’m calling that type of exchange criminal, at least in part.

You and I have jobs. We work and probably work very hard. We put in the time and we get paid for it. That is called fair exchange. In our current society, right or wrong, we have to exchange a product or service for money. That’s the game.

There are other associated ways money can be made to switch hands, like lottery, theft and altruism.

Well, it ain’t a lottery and panhandling isn’t theft, since one donates by choice.

So it must be altruism.

But is it altruistic? While giving someone five dollars might silence the roar in their belly, what does it really do? Better yet, what would a homeless person say it actually does? More on that later.

5. Does my money really help?

I can buy Bob a sandwich and it’ll fill his belly. That is somewhat helpful. But then Bob is going to need another sandwich. What happens after that? I have to keep buying Bob sandwiches…or at least someone does.

Bob stays the same. He does nothing, produces nothing, changes his stars not at all. The potential for growth is increased by roughly zero and he doesn’t learn anything by the process, other than he prefers pastrami over turkey.

This is a never-ending process and one that is inherently destined to fail. Sort of like giving money to a drug user who has run out of junk. He’s about to go into serious withdrawals and you’ll feel bad knowing he’s going to suffer. So you “help” him by giving him more drug money. You sissy out because you can’t confront the short-term pain he’s going to experience, and instead prolong the agony because that edge is just a bit duller. It isn’t help at all. It’s becoming an accomplice to a broken way of life, a broken system, yada yada you get it.

6. Homelessness isn’t the problem, it’s a symptom

I wish homelessness were cured by money. Then you and I and the government could throw a pile of money at it and it would be solved. And honestly, I’d be all for that.

But obviously that’s not the solution.

One can wind up on the streets for many reasons: bad luck, rebellion, lack of money, bad planning, trauma, divorce, neglect, or even just a decision. “Fuck it, Ima go out and be homeless.”

Regardless of the cause, the duration and longevity of that homeless condition comes down to responsibility and a “what am I going to do about this?” attitude on the part of the homeless person.

Meaning…there are homeless people who will sadly die on the streets. There are homeless people who will change their stars and get off the streets right quick. And there are rich executives and CEOs who were once homeless themselves.

There are resources everywhere. Free libraries with free internet, cheap clothing at Goodwill and Value Village, places to stay for cheap or free, government programs to help…the list goes on. One thing is certain, homelessness is NOT incurable. And the biggest part of the cure is not waiting for handouts, but deciding the condition one is in must change and taking advantage of the resources available.

7. Giving People Money is Sort of a Bullshit Pansy Way to Avoid Real Help

That’s right. You heard me. Giving someone five bucks is never going to change what has happened to their life and why.

But I know people who give money to homeless people for all sorts of awful reasons:

  • “If I give them money, they’ll leave me alone.”
  • “There’s nothing else I can do for them.”
  • “I feel guilty for making as much money as I do.”

And I’ll be honest, I’ve felt like this too at times. But that inability to confront the homeless condition, and throwing money at it instead, isn’t going to do a damn thing.

If we want to actually HELP, it’s going to make more than money. And that’s obvious, ain’t it? I mean, homeless people make money. They do. But if they’re still homeless then there must be some other problem.

No, I’m not a total asshole

I’m not a heartless shell of a person. I do understand that a sandwich can save a life. I don’t like to give cash for the reasons stated above, but I’m not going to ignore someone knocking on Death’s door.

A guy in Cape Cod asked me for change once and he looked so sad, so horrible. He looked closer to death than anyone I’d ever seen. Well, except for an actual dead guy.

I told this fellow, “I really don’t want you to spend money on alcohol.”

He said, “I’d love some alcohol, but right now I’m so hungry.”

I said, “Let’s get a lunch then.”

He and I sat down in this little cafe looking out at some harbor. We spent a half an hour in there, being stared at by other patrons of the place. We sat in silence, and I watched this poor soul lay into a soup and sandwich. I had to tell him to eat slowly so he wouldn’t throw it all up later. He slowed down a bit and ended up taking half a sandwich for the road.

No, I didn’t change his life. At most, I prolonged it by a day.

Doesn’t that go against the philosophy I outlined above? Yeah, probably. But I don’t care. It’s likely my philosophy will change any time a guy looks like he’s about to die right at my feet. That’s when you lift the car off the baby, pull a lady from a burning wreck and give CPR to the guy who looks like he’s got rabies. Fuck it. A life is on the line and you do what can.

It was humbling and horrible and wondrous and I hated it.

Also, I know there are ramifications to what I’m saying. I’m aware that if everyone immediately stopped giving money to homeless people right now, there would probably be a few dead homeless people tomorrow.

I don’t know what to say about that. But what if we all stopped giving money to homeless people and started talking to them instead? What then I wonder? Next week’s post will touch on that.

And this isn’t about the money. I’m not a stingy bastard. I donated $18,000 to charity in 2010. So, this is not about the money in the slightest.

Money’s a bitch. I know. But we’re pretty powerful beings, aren’t we? Just stands to reason there might be something under that street grime that goes deeper than money.

Before they got homeless, the homeless person was a kid or teenager or adult with aspirations. We all start somewhere, and some of us fall and fall hard along the way.

I’m a very curious fellow by nature. And I like to talk to people. And I really like to talk to strangers. Mix those together and the result is a person who isn’t afraid to talk to homeless people about why they’re homeless.

I’ve got a few stories to tell you, straight from the mouths of three homeless people, The Unicycle Guy, The Joke Guy and Paul Bunyan. Surely not a large enough sample to mean anything scientifically, but I think you’ll be amazed at what these homeless people had to say about being homeless. I certainly was.

I’ll give you a hint. It’s not about the money.

See you next week. Prepare to be humbled.

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25 Comments:
  1. Charlie,

    Well, if this doesn’t Ignite your inbox, at least, then your readers are sleeping. 😉

    Small bone to pick, then my thoughts: “bad luck, rebellion, lack of money, bad planning, trauma, divorce, neglect, or even just a decision.” True, but you forgot the two biggies, accounting for most homelessness—addictions (various) and mental illness. Those two are really why the problem can’t be cured by throwing a few bucks at someone.

    My 2¢: I’ve been an urban- or just-barely-sub-urbanite for most of my life. When folks who aren’t used to urban living visit me they are sometimes appalled that I don’t give money to homeless folks, either. But anyone who’s lived in or near a major city for more than a week knows you could empty your pockets on a walk across the town and (a) not catch everyone who needs help and (b) not solve anything, as you very rightly point out. I’ve seen people look at me like I’m unbelievably calloused, but unfortunately that’s a sign that they’re unbelievably green.

    Or maybe fortunately. There should be more people who are so trusting.

    That’s my part one. Part two: In the region I live in now, we have a scam going on that must be the best racket in the universe, judging from how often it’s tried.

    You: [pumping gas at a service station]

    He or she: [Drives up to another pump, walks over toward your pump] Excuse me, I’m from (name city nearby) and I’m trying to get back in time for (class, work, family reunion at 3…) and I just don’t have enough gas. This is so embarrassing, I’ve never done anything like this before, but I left my wallet at home. I’m not asking for a handout or anything, just wondering if you could give me enough money to fill my gas tank so I can get home.

    Word. for. word. No kidding.

    The first time it happened, I actaully had no money so I said No without guilt. The second time, I was wary. The third…OMG.

    If it’s ever true, I’d love to feel guilty about telling them No Way. But in my *cough, cough* years on the planet, no one has ever asked me for gas money before. Not even in college when we ALL needed gas money. And in the last 4 years this game has been played with me dozens of times. Don’t know if it’s only greater Philly, but that (combined with the pros outside of grocery stores, and the unsolvable chronic issues in the inner city) is enough to make anyone decide they are done being the good samaritan.

    So whatever firestorm may come to you, you get at least one Yes sir from a 100%-pure bleeding-heart liberal. It makes me sad, but Yes, sir. I hear ya.

    Regards,

    Kelly

    • Wow, Kelly, that is an awesome comment. Although, I pretty much love any comment that doesn’t just say, “I agree. Great post.”

      And you’re right about the addiction and mental health causes of homelessness. And of course you’re absolutely right about how any handout will do absolutely nothing of lasting benefit for those folks.

      The gasoline scheme you mentioned is one I haven’t experienced myself, but I’ve been party other dishonest ploys. Like the blind guy who isn’t actually blind. And the guy who just needs money to “feed his dog.” And and and.

      I tell you, I’d be much more inclined to give someone some cash if they just looked me in the eye and said, “Dude, I’m really hungry. Can I have some change?” and didn’t try to create a Jerry Springer plot line out of it. There’s a fellow here in Seattle with a sign that says, “Need to Buy Weed.” I don’t give him money of course, but I like his belief in honest marketing. 😀

      Thanks for stopping by, girl! XOXOXOX

    • Hi Kelly –

      I had the EXACT SAME scam run on me when I first moved to Los Angeles, only it was a very pregnant woman who needed enough gas money to escape her abusive boyfriend. I consider myself pretty wary & savvy, but she got me that day. I wasn’t willing to finance her whole road trip, but I figured I could help out a bit. I let her follow me to the ATM in the drugstore where I was headed, and took out $20 to give to her. After I handed it to her, she asked if I could spare more (red flag), and I said no.

      A few months later, the SAME WOMAN approached me again with the same story (she wasn’t pregnant this time). I told her “I gave you money before.” She rushed away from me as fast as her legs could carry her.

      I very rarely give money to homeless people. I really have to be feeling generous, because the guilt trip no longer works.

      Charlie – My friend fell for the gas-can thing.

      Booo!

      –Nicole

  2. I agree with your philosophy. I lived in New Orleans for a while and there were always panhandlers around, day after day, year after year. Running their scam. I even saw the ultimate classic, the “amputee vet on the wheelie board”. Late one night when he thought no one could see him, he unfolded his legs and got up, stretched, picked up his wheelie board and walked off. Presumably with a pocket full of money.

    There was another guy who sat on Decatur Street by Jackson Square and always had “his kids” with him. Looked so pathetic. Except that the kids were always different. Or I should say that he had different kids with him all the time, but it was from a pool of about 8 or 10 kids. Not sure if they were his or just local kids doing their shift with him.

    Anyway, I’ve always thought it more important to teach a man to fish than to just give him a fish. I don’t want him to be dependent on me for that fish when he can go out and get his own doggone fish.

    Can’t wait for part II.

    • Stephen,

      Ho. Ly. Shit. That is crazy! I’ve never heard of anyone going to those lengths, to *fake* being an amputee. Hahahahhaa. Wow. I’m sort of stunned by that.

      Wow. I mean…that takes planning and equipment.

      It sort of validates the suspicion most of us fortunately or unfortunately have built in.

      Ima go scratch my head a bit over this one.

      Thanks, bud!

      • In Europe it’s quite common for people to cut their limbs off to be beggars. Makes them way more money. I don’t give homeless money, but I usually have bananas and yogurt and stuff on hand. Food, at least, they can’t squander on drugs.

  3. Okay, I get where you’re coming from. Just my added opinion for what it’s worth…
    I was a mental health case manager for about nine years. My caseload consisted of twenty mentally ill, homeless adults. While there are resources available, they aren’t always that easily obtained. I’ve had clients (who happened to be parents of homeless little people) wait on waitlists for shelter beds for weeks at a time. There just weren’t enough beds available. And, those were just the people who were able and yes, willing to fill out the necessary paper work, check-in every day and wait on the lists.

    Many others just weren’t capable of jumping through the necessary hoops to obtain housing and assistance. They were often in and out of shelters, hospitals and/or jail. One client who comes to mind, thought- NO believed, that he was Laura Ingalls heel (yes, the Little House on the Prairie girl and the heel of her foot). He believed she carried him throughout the universe. Seriously, I can’t make this stuff up. Not surprisingly, this guy had a hard time making appointments and filling out paper work. But, he knew when he was hungry. He just didn’t have the stuff to get along in this world like the rest of us. And in all honesty, housing wasn’t terribly important to him.

    But all that aside, I tend to give spare change to people who ask for change for a couple reasons, reasons that have little to do with what I’ve mentioned above. First of all, how they became homeless is none of my business. There are as many reasons for homelessness as there are homeless people. Second, it is my belief that it must really suck to ask a stranger for money. And, doing it so often that it no longer feels degrading, must suck even more.

    As always, looking forward to your next post!

    • Thanks for that, Kristina. I really appreciate hearing from someone who’s had such close ties with the topic.

      I feel a lot like you do. In that, once you’re homeless, the odds are somewhat stacked against you and you become part of an inefficient machine. Of course, pretty much anywhere the government gets involved, you get inefficiency so it’s no wonder.

      And when it comes to this equation: my spare money = a meal for someone, I don’t mind giving. It’s when the doubt I spoke to above is there. And where there is opportunity for misuse.

      Hmmm. Yeah. Thanks for the comment! And thanks for trying to help people out for real 🙂

  4. I whole heartedly agree with your post, that has been my exact outlook on the situation for a long time. I have two uncles that were homeless for some time before they killed themselves with drugs. One was an alcoholic/drug addict that would do very well for himself, get to the top of his game then crash and live on the streets for two years. He would pull himself back up somehow, live with me and my single mom, until he was able to get work and a home. He then would help us by taking us to dinner and movies etc. This would last about two years and then he would be a bum for two years again. He did it to himself every time, and he would pick himself up every time. He overdosed on drugs, right before he lost his home and girlfriend for the last time.

    My other uncle was a drug addict/alcoholic who was on Portland streets for many years, he finally got himself re-established with housing and income and used the state money to buy heroin and killed himself with an overdose.

    Basically, these guys would pick themselves up and then let themselves fall again. If my mom had put her hand out to them while they were down instead of when they wanted to get back up, it would have drug her down with them.

    We as a society should not do that either. We should wait until they are really ready to get help, and that is when we can offer it.

    Oh, one more person that may interest you…My mom is a flagger and while working in Seattle she met a man who frequented the corner she was stationed at. He was homeless because he had two kids, and if he got a job he would have to pay child support which would take all of his earnings. So he chose to be irresponsible for them and himself! Imagine if that was the guy you gave your money too…disgusting.

    • Wow, Tonya, that’s wild. And thanks for the real-life stories.

      That’s what I was just talking about above with Kristina. The system is itself pretty busted up. Then you’ve got people within the system who are busted up and already down and out. So for them, it becomes so hard to get and keep straight. Situation sort of becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      It’s super ugly. Thinking about that, and the system, and the drugs so many of these folks are on (street and pharmaceutical)…it’s a nasty ride for them.

    • Yes, I only give money to the stupidest of charities, out of principle.

      Sheesh. I’m guessing you didn’t really read the post did you?

      • No, I read the post, and the comments. I understand where you’re coming from: I’ve given money to folks on the street before, and I’ve had afterthoughts about whether a person or two tricked me.

        I don’t have much money. You have 18k to drop on charity donations- in one year- most of it will probably be spent on employee salaries and bonuses anyway.

  5. Hello. This is my first time at your blog and quite frankly I enjoyed the shit out of it 🙂 I am a 23 year old female working in an independant fast food resturaunt. Today I overheard a few of my coworkers talking about an instance where a family came into the resturaunt, very “poor” looking. They said this little girl about three or four years old asked for a hamburger and since the mother told her no because they couldn’t afford it, my coworkers decided it would be a nice gesture to go ahead and give the family something to eat for free. I was very quick to say that I do not believe in handouts. Why would you bring your small, “hungry” children into a fast food place if you are insufficient? I had a whole group of coworkers disagree with me and say that I do not have a heart since I felt that way.

    While I am young, I have been working for the last 7 years. I have had taxes taken out of my paychecks for 7 years. Ultimately, that is why I do not feel guilty. My taxes go towards things like food stamps and medicaid, and I am a beneficiary for neither. I am not complaining, I just don’t want anyone to misunderstand me. I do not hold anything against anyone who takes advantage of the opportunities the governent gives them, because it’s not much and there for a reason. There are a lot of programs out there to help people, and personally I get offended when people ask ME for help. I feel like if people can’t take care of themselves, they shouldn’t be having children that they can’t take care of. I’m trying as hard as I can to become a responsible adult, and I feel like everyone else can put forth the effort as well. & if they don’t, that’s not my problem. I didn’t bring children into this world that I couldn’t take care of.

    Before I would give someone free food or money, I would really stand there and ask them: why are you here (fast food) instead of a grocery store? what is stopping you from getting food stamps and going grocery shopping? Obviously I am not going to let someone die right in front of me… and this is when I would like to quote my favorite part of your article:

    “It’s likely my philosophy will change any time a guy looks like he’s about to die right at my feet. That’s when you lift the car off the baby, pull a lady from a burning wreck and give CPR to the guy who looks like he’s got rabies. Fuck it. A life is on the line and you do what can.”

    I’m pretty sure people don’t go to fast food resturaunts to die lol. Glad I came across this today and saw that there are people out there who feel the same as me. I had to get this out of my system somewhere 🙂

    • Hi Ashley!

      Thanks so much for the well-written, entertaining and thoughtful comment. It’s great to hear your side of things. And I appreciate the kind words about the blog. Glad you’re enjoying your first visit.

      Boy, I hear you. This is one of those topics that is never ever going to get a unanimous vote from all parties. And I like your approach of asking a homeless person, “Hey, why don’t you buy some actual groceries?” A simple question like that can lead to a conversation, and a conversation can lead to a changed life.

      Thanks again! You totally made my day. Hope to see you ’round these here parts agin. 🙂

      Charlie

  6. No such thing as “homeless” we ALL have a home. Some just live in a box. But what we are talking about is “begging”. As a former crackhead and 5x felon I can tell you most “beggars” are not homeless, just in need of drugs or booze. Altruism is not the answer. Good intentions pave the way to hell.

    • True…we are talking about beggars more than homelessness. I’d be so interested in hearing some of your back story and how you turned things around.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. Here lies the biggest problem with society nowadays. You concentrate on the bad ones. I give because if you’re doing well, help when you can. I don’t do it for them, I do it for my soul. If I can just help one person out of a rut out of the twenty times I do it, perfect.

    • Hey Jonathan,

      Well we probably have more in common than you might think from this one post. I used to give money as well, as the post says. And it was “good for the soul.” Until I found out it really wasn’t. Neither for me nor often for those I gave money to. (Check out the next post in the series to see what I mean.

  8. I agree with not giving money. I live close by 3 busy gas stations/travel stops. If I’m driving to get food and see a homeless person I’ll usually keep them in mind when I order.

    • That’s a good solution! I like to do that too. Order an extra set of fries for someone.

      Actually, that reminds me of this one homeless fellow who was outside a burger joint. He asked for change when I was on the way in, but I didn’t have any. I got him some french fries and brought them out to him and he goes, “Pfft. I don’t want no damn fries. I wanted to buy a drink!”

      • Wow, he could’ve just ask you to buy him a drink. No need to be rude, especially when you’re begging for something.

  9. Great article. I am one of those people who do not give my money to “beggars” either. I have a few stories that have helped me to come to that decision. But there is one story in particular that really pushed me in that direction.

    When I was in high school, our class had gone to LA to run the LA marathon. The day after, we were in Venice Beach grabbing breakfast from McDonalds before making the trip home. As we were leaving, we were approached by a number of “beggars” looking for money. None of us had any so we decided to give them any extra food we had, along with a bunch of extra tshirts that we had collected from the marathon expo during the week. When we tried to give them these items, they began yelling at us that they didn’t want our food or clothes, that they just wanted our money.

    From that point on, it’s been difficult for me to help when some one approaches me about needing money.

    The Denver Post ran a story years ago about the city’s panhandling problem. They profiled a couple who panhandled every day. Come to find out, they both had good jobs, a modest home, & were pocketing money from strangers…..untaxed.

    I’m all for donating my time & money to worthy causes that give the true homeless population the services they need to get help, but it’s hard for me to determine anyone who is really in need & who isn’t, which is why I can’t give handouts away to those who approach me on the street.

  10. Hi Charlie,

    I just read your article and I agree. I’m a Brit by the way and we get much the same problem over here. I’ve lived in Southampton for 3 years and have always seen the same guys “just asking for 50p” or staying by the train station “just asking for £1 so they can get home”. I know there is a high level of support for the homeless here because I work in a hotel and often see the city council paying for weeks at a time so the homeless can get a temporary address and subsequently jobs. Unfortunately, too many abuse the system.
    Perhaps we’re all just callous individuals but, like you, I don’t think the problem is solved by sprinkling some money on it. Perhaps, in the long run, it’s kinder to be cruel. My friends tell me I am a heartless bastard and sometimes I agree with them but I am prepared to live with it if it means that homeless people start seeking help from the correct sources. It’s taken a bit of gullibility on my part to realise that you don’t help the homeless by giving them money just like you don’t help petulant children by giving them sweets.
    I dislike the way I came across in the last paragraph but it feels good when you donate to charity but it doesn’t feel good when someone takes advantage of you; it teaches you not to mince your words.

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