these new eyes of mine
December 7, 2008 7:21 AM   Subscribe

When do you stop to help a homeless or disabled person on the street?

For the past three Sundays, I've gone to the same outdoor marketplace. I've been here countless times in the last 14 months that I've lived here. But the last 3 times, I've noticed this same person.

He sits on a pedestrian overpass, crossing over a busy street. His face is terribly burned and disfigured. He's in rags. He has no hands. He has a can in front of him, with a little money in the bottom.

The first time I saw him, I looked away and kept walking. But I felt terrible. The next week, he was there again. I was with a friend and asked if maybe we should stop and do something. He gave me that age-old line that giving the homeless money does very little to actually help their situation and is really just a way to make YOU feel better. Again, we kept walking. All week, I've been thinking about this man. He was there again today.

This time, I just couldn't ignore him. Heart pounding and all nervous, I quickly dropped the currency equivalent to 20 bucks in his little bucket and kept walking. But about 20 feet later, I stopped. I had to turn around. I went back, knelt down and wrapped the scarf I was wearing around his neck. I put my hand on his shoulder for a moment and just looked in his face before getting up to walk away.

This experience has shaken me in a way I can't describe. It wrecks me that he's invisible to so many people. It wrecks me that I walked past him 2 other times and did nothing. It wrecks me that I can't do more. The whole thing just...wrecks me.

That's a long intro to my question: What is the best thing to do when you see an immediate need like that in front of you? Is it actually helpful to stop and give a little money or buy them a meal or cup of coffee? Or are actions like that an effort to ease your own guilt? Are you really just enabling them to stay in their current situation?

In every city I've ever lived, I've walked past the homeless without really thinking or noticing. Today I stopped. I'm ashamed it's taken me this long to see and I feel powerless knowing what to do with these new eyes of mine.
posted by hydrate to Human Relations (45 answers total) 63 users marked this as a favorite
He gave me that age-old line that giving the homeless money does very little to actually help their situation and is really just a way to make YOU feel better.

Honestly, I think that's more of a cop out. There are some homeless people where you have to question whether or not they're actually homeless, or whether they're homeless because they spend all their money on drugs or alcohol. If I'm not sure and I have the time, I will give these people food instead of money. Also, if they seem to have a mental illness I will give them food, because I can't be sure that they won't lose the money or think to spend it on something odd that won't help them.

But this guy? He has no hands, is burned and disfigured, and your friend thinks that your giving him some money won't actually help him? That's just absurd to me. There's always the chance that he might still spend the money on drugs or alcohol, but you can at least be somewhat reassured that it's less likely he ended up homeless because of an addiction than the more obvious problems. I think chances are better than usual that he didn't blow the money on something unhelpful.

Still, if the money issue is going to gnaw at you, food is a safe bet, I think. The college I went to bordered a street that was filled with homeless people. I'm terrible about forgetting to eat left-overs from restaurants, so rather than have the food go to waste, I made a habit of walking right over to that street after eating and finding someone who needed the food.

If your friend has some weird argument that food doesn't help them, I'd suspect they're saying that so that they don't have to feel guilty about not helping them. Everyone needs food, and having someone give you food is better than wondering where your next meal is going to come from.
posted by Nattie at 7:36 AM on December 7, 2008

A homeless woman was forcibly taken off the street here in NYC because she was acting crazy. She was burning money, and that's just crazy, right? Turns out she would burn any money that was given to her without speaking, that was just kind of tossed at her like feeding an animal.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:47 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

I put my hand on his shoulder for a moment and just looked in his face before getting up to walk away.

You don't mention ever speaking to him. Does this mean you didn't visit with him at all? Maybe you could start a conversation with him next time and ask him about his circumstances and find out what his day-to-day needs are.
posted by amyms at 7:48 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

You don't mention ever speaking to him. Does this mean you didn't visit with him at all? Maybe you could start a conversation with him next time and ask him about his circumstances and find out what his day-to-day needs are.

This stood out to me, too, particularly since you wrapped a scarf around his face. You didn't share a single word? Strange.

I used to feel much as you did, hydrate, until I moved to a city with a large homeless/vagrant population. I've been chased through farmer's markets by aggressive panhandlers, and a friend who invited a man from the street in for food (stupid) had her purse stolen. Another friend once went to buy a meal for a homeless person outside a fast food place was told by the employees that the individual wasn't actually homeless, but lived around the corner. Many of the homeless/panhandlers here are missing limbs--but as my SO likes to remind me, that's just as likely to happen if you're an alcoholic with diabetes as a vet. I hate to sound so cynical abut it, but my experience has shown me that, really, it's much safer to generally keep my distance and not respond. There are enough soup kitchens and coat and blanket drives here that there are ways to help without risking personal safety.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:56 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Where I live, a lot of people panhandle at intersections and I've solved the money/no money dilemma by keeping granola bars in my car. That way, I know I'm helping in some way. (Except for the time one guy told me "Sorry, oats give me gas"!)

Another person I know keeps McDonalds Bucks in her wallet.
posted by missjenny at 7:59 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: He gave me that age-old line that giving the homeless money does very little to actually help their situation and is really just a way to make YOU feel better.

Honestly, I think that's more of a cop out.

Honestly, and with respect, I don't - not if you choose to be pro-active in other ways.

I live in NYC (at the moment) and I walk past homeless people every time I leave my apartment. I don't give to them. I have talked to many of them - I ask them if they need to know where they can find a hot meal or a shower or a warm place to sleep. I'm familiar with many of the places that offer these and other programs in the area because I both volunteer with and give to these places. Most of them are religious institutions and the best ones offer real programs that can help many people on the street get past the problems that are sometimes keeping them there (in many cases alcohol and drugs). I have to realize that most of these people are dealing with problems that are bigger than my $20 dollars can solve, but my $20 can help a lot more than just one person if I give it to my local homeless shelter. It doesn't have that same warm touchy-feely experience that the OP got, but I believe it does more in the end.

I moved to Africa about a year and a half ago to work in humanitarian supply chain management for one of the largest NGO's doing relief and development work in 3rd world countries, many of which are cast across the dark continent. One of the very first things I had to come to grips with was the sheer masses of humanity that were daily pressing on me for something - anything - to help them. I mean, the kids on the street in the town that I lived and worked and ate and drank and watched movies and ran my morning runs in - these kids very often lacked a full outfit. Many of them had just tattered pants, and they would stand in the street intersections with bags of trash, begging for whatever garbage you might have in your car, hoping for some food or maybe even pocket change. And I had the change for tolls there in my console, but I had to force myself to not give it to them - because as much as I might give out, at every intersection, those same kids would still be there the next day. Giving change wasn't going to bring any real change - real change is a function of the development of institutional/political/infrastructural/et. al. factors that can lead to real ways of getting these kids off the street, which is really the end goal. And since that's what my work over there was focused on, I had to turn my heart off - every day, every time I left the house, to the huddled masses outside my door. Because that's how I could help them.

It sounds horrible but I believe it in my heart. I think the important thing is that you understand the age-old line but that you don't let it become a cop-out. Find a way to get involved in volunteering or to start giving to a local shelter or homelessness program. Start researching in your community and then go and sit and talk with this man you have taken pity on and ask him if you can help him get involved in a program that can help him. If he says no, ask why not. Get to know him. Find a way to help him.

All of that said, I remember the first time my tough old conservative of a dad came to visit me in the city. We were walking through the 34th street subway station and we passed an grizzled old veteran in a piss-rank, cold, dirty hallway. He didn't have a sign, but he had one of those naval hats displaying the ship he had served on, and he didn't have any legs, or a wheelchair. He was just sitting there staring at the wall across from him. I was on my normal brisk-walk without noticing but my dad stopped and gave the guy a couple bucks. This was my dad, who raised me to tell you everything I've just told you above. My dad, who in my 25 or so years I had never seen *once* give anything directly to a person on the street. I stopped and he must have noted the amazed look in my eyes because he shrugged and simply said "Now that I'm getting older, I know that its tougher for the old ones."

Sometimes despite what you need to believe in your heart, your heart still needs to break.

This is one of the very best questions I've ever seen on the green. Thanks for asking it.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:08 AM on December 7, 2008 [86 favorites]

Best answer: Look, lots of homeless are scammers. I've been take several times: the guy who'd missed his bus, here, look here's my ID, this is where I live, let me take your address, I'll mail you back the seven bucks I need for a cab. Never say that seven bucks again.

The woman with the kid, about to be evicted, she's a nurse, here's her employee id, she just needs to make rent. I did see her again, a few weeks later; same speil, but this time the kid was eating out of an enormous bag of cheesy poofs, something I couldn't afford living in DC and making $7 an hour. So the secnd time, no "rent money" for her.

The two girls who needed to get back home to Michigan after a journey of mistakes. I temporized and bought them lunch, then agreed I'd pay fare home, but only if I went to the bus station and paid the ticket agent myself. Suddenly they had to meet friends.

Lots of homeless are scammers. But then, they have little choice. Maybe at one time they did have choices and options, but now they're dirty, drugged out, depressed, fucked up, have PTSD, body odor and demons, and no change of clothes let alone a snazzy interview suit.

What else are they going to do to get cash, and yes, a little self-medication in a bottle to let them forget their misery for a while.

And sure, you don't want to perpetuate their self-destructive spiral, and you really don't want to reward the two smelly, bloodily bandaged asshole homeless guys who sit on the park benches and scream "I bet you have a juicy cunt baby" to every third woman who passes by and who shuffle up in your face suggesting violent intent or at least an tenacious unwillingness to go away until you've coughed up a dollar or called their bluff.

But your homeless guy, he's got a burnt face and he's just sitting there, he's not harrassing anyone. He's not even screaming at God about his miserable fate, and frankly he desrves some credit just for that.

And he's not going to be getting a job on the temp typing pool or even pushing a broom because he's got no hands and if he spends your money on a half-liter of Muscatel that he holds between his feet and somehow maneuvers to his mouth, well that maneuver's the closest he's going to get to a miracle or even a good day and what the fuck else is he going to do with his time?

-- I mean he can't even jack himself off for Christ's sake he's got no hands! --

So give him your change, and maybe if you feel comfortable, ask him if there's anything he could use, like a clean set of clothes you don't wear anymore or maybe the newspaer your done with or a book you've finished, hell he probably just wants smeone to treat him fr once like a human being who's not invisible and entirely useless ad superfluous to society and all mankind.

And I'm not saying you should marry him or hang out together, but half an hour of your time and the chance (if he doesn't smell like a a sewer) to sit like a customer in a coffehouse and drink something hot and maybe chke down a sandwich, rather than sit outside it like abandoned filthy trash people detour around that might really make his week.

Of course, he's probably nuts and so unused to people who aren't trying to roust him or cheat him or or beat him or at best who avoid his gaze that he'll be terribly uncouth crazy fucked up rambling smelly company, and who among us wouldn't be nuts with burn scars across our faces where our noses used to be and scabbed stumps for hands, so I wouldn't make a habit of it, but buy him a coffee and ask him his name, because once long ago he too had a mother who held him and named him and brought him into this world and made him a part of our common humanity.

Just give him a little money, a little food, and little chance to have a human conversation.
posted by orthogonality at 8:12 AM on December 7, 2008 [68 favorites]

This is what I do a few times a year, especially over the winter months. That article pretty much sums up how I feel about it. The rest of the year I just give when I feel like the individual situation merits it and I can spare the money. I also do what Nattie described with restaurant leftovers.

One exception I make: I will not give anything to a young, white, able-bodied male. That may make me seem sexist/racist/ageist, but in the US those individuals already enjoy many advantages over the rest of the needy, and with any effort at all could improve their situation on their own.
posted by trip and a half at 8:20 AM on December 7, 2008

Look, lots of homeless are scammers.

There's this guy here in NYC who must live in the West Village. You'll know who he is because he has a bicycle. He came across me and my friend while we were waiting for a table at Ino on Bedford Street. A whole big story about being some kind of costume designer and just got locked out of his apartment and needs 5 bucks for cab fare to somewhere where the spare keys were - yeah, he had a bike and still somehow got me, he was that good. Wanted my address to mail the money back to so I gave him my business card as kind a cosmic test of the goodness of humanity, in my brain. Of course I never got anything back in the mail.

But about a year later I'm in a friend's car on Houston and I see this same guy with his same bike and he's chatting up two tourist girls. I yell at my friend to stop the car and I jump out and walk up to the girls and ask them if this guy just got locked out and has a bunch of costumes hidden in his hallway and really needs cab fare to go get his spare keys before someone steals the costumes. They look at me kind of dumbfounded and he looks at me with a scowl.

"Don't bother giving him your address."
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:26 AM on December 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

If I have time, and the person is not aggressive or annoying (don't grab my arm, please) I will stop and try to have a real conversation sometimes. I don't avoid the "hellos" or other non-lines, because as orthogonality suggests, sometimes they really could use some actual conversation. I figure that "Hey, I like your boots!" is probably not a sentence they hear often from the people brushing them off.

Too: I don't like handing out money for the usual reasons, unless I literally have change in my hand while leaving a shop, but if someone approaches me when I happen to be on my way into a coffee shop and asks for money, I usually ignore that specific question and ask "You want a coffee?" instead.

If they say yes, I bring them one when I'm getting my own. This also works well at near the soup joint, the taco truck, the slider stand, and the sandwich shop.
posted by rokusan at 8:29 AM on December 7, 2008

If I have a few bucks or spare change I give it to the person who asks. I do not care if she spends it on beer, whiskey, crack or pizza. That is her decision. Mine is to part with my hard earned money to help someone get whatever it is they want or need. I prefer to help in a micro level not a macro one as I sometimes see tangible results. In all seriousness, the look on a wino's face when you buy him a cheap bottle of wine is priceless. And if it is to make me feel better, so be it.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:30 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

orthogonality's post just brought tears to my eyes. I wish I could favorite it a million times.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 8:32 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Part of me agrees with your friend, and part of me sympathizes with your way of thinking. I have lived in Viet Nam for nearly seven months now, and have seen my fair share of homeless people on the street. Before I moved to Viet Nam, I lived in Houston, Texas, and also saw a lot of homeless people underneath bridges or overpasses. Here is what I think:

Honestly, I don't think it's a cop out to believe that giving a homeless person money doesn't really help them out in the long run. As other comments have pointed out, you have no idea if who you are giving money to is a scammer or an honest person. Now, you could argue that whether or not the homeless person is good or bad is not of your concern (as long as you are doing something to help the world), but for many people, the nature of who they are giving their money or time to is important. I do not think that it's wrong to believe giving money to the homeless is a waste of money for them and for you, if they abuse drugs and or/alcohol. That said, this man was disfigured and clearly not a scammer, which brings me to my next point.

I rarely give money to able bodied homeless men. Maybe this discrimination is wrong, but I can't bring myself to give money to another grown man who has strong legs, strong arms, and enough energy to stand or sit for hours. When I lived in Houston, I would see homeless men with very healthy looking bodies, and wonder to myself, "Why aren't they looking for work? Can they not go to a Salvation Army and pick up clothes to go work somewhere?" Perhaps my thinking of homeless men is far too simplistic, but something inside of me just cannot bring myself to give them money.

The caveat there is that if a man is completely disfigured in some way, I try to give a little. There are many victims of Agent Orange in Viet Nam, and seeing their shriveled limps is a really difficult thing, especially given the fact that I'm an American, and in some small way, feel like I have a responsibility to help them out. But time after time, and day after day of seeing so many handicapped people asking for money, one grows numb to this. The first few months I lived in Viet Nam, I would do my best to spare some change for the handicapped, and now I think things like "I gave money last week, no way in hell I'm giving any more money this week." What I mean is that if you pass this man every week for the next several weeks or several months, you will also grow less emotionally affected by the sight of him. He will become less of an emotional trigger for you and more of a responsibility that you will grow on some level to resent.

So choose your actions wisely. While I commend for you helping another human being out, you really need to ask yourself if you were doing it for him or for you. Give to him for another 6 months and at the end of that time, I am sure you will feel some sense of relief that you don't have to keep giving to a man who never seems to be able to exit from the state in which he currently exists.

Now to women and children. One of the most difficult parts of seeing the homeless is when there are children involved. Often times I see mothers with their children (very young children) begging, and it pains me to see that. Yes, I do my best to help when I can, but even then I think about if what I am doing actually helps them out. The problem with not giving money to the homeless is that sometimes I think "Whatever, someone else will help them out," but that is exactly what happens during crimes, when someone is being beaten or killed. Everyone thinks that someone else will help the victim out, but no one actually helps them.

I guess this long answer really doesn't have a resolution. But I would say that while you are a good person for giving, you really need to ask yourself why you did it. Was it to help them or make you feel good? It's not a cop out to ask that question. It's an important one.

posted by aloneinvietnam at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

A whole big story about being some kind of costume designer and just got locked out of his apartment and needs 5 bucks...

I sometimes indulge these people, too, who are pretty easy to tell apart from the genuinely needy, at least to me. Sometimes I just like to admire their skill, their story and their patter.

Sometimes, if they're really good, I'll say "Wow, that was a great story, man. I loved the part about the midget trapped in the drainpipe, really sold the point home. Maybe say 'fucking Saskatchewan' next time instead of 'goddamn Montana', it sounds more exotic and people will respond to that, I bet. Anyway, I'm sure not giving you ten dollars, but good luck, and here's a buck for your trouble, 'cause like I said, great story, man."
posted by rokusan at 8:36 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much to everybody who has commented so far. I'm humbled and grateful for the feedback.

I should mention that I live in Istanbul and have a very (VERY) limited grasp of the language(s). But I know that's no excuse. I could stop and ask this man simple things like, "Are you hungry?" "Do you have a home?" As clumsy as I'd sound, I know I could get those basic things out.

Also, I'm seeing I need to look into what kind of help is out there - and where I can best give my time and resources.

Keep the thoughts coming - many thanks!
posted by hydrate at 8:39 AM on December 7, 2008

Honestly, I don't think it's a cop out to believe that giving a homeless person money doesn't really help them out in the long run. As other comments have pointed out, you have no idea if who you are giving money to is a scammer or an honest person.

I think a useful distinction is being drawn here between able-bodied panhandlers, often who have very well-practiced stories about some recent misfortune that has led them to ask you for money (as if they have never had to ask for money before); and panhandlers with some unfakable disability, such as arms or legs that are just stumps; thick, matted beards; a total abandonment of any grooming effort; obvious inability to communicate.

But you can't always tell. There is a panhandler guy I've seen around town for a couple of years, who appeared blind, totally disheveled and incoherent, obviously too disabled to communicate, who every time I have seen him would slouch on the pavement in front of a convenience store and not say anything, just holding a dirty styrofoam cup feebly in his hand. He walked into a bookstore where I was shopping recently, asked to borrow the phone, and began very articulately telling a friend that he was done for the day, would you please come pick me up, I will be waiting for you at the corner of Main and Elm, which car will you be in, and I've got some money from you. It was like that SNL skit where Reagan was a doddering fool in front of tourists, and became a savvy, calculating leader barking orders at his minions once the tourists were gone.
posted by jayder at 9:09 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I don't think there's any (final) answer to this question, just thinking. In many places (including where I live), a person can't give to everyone who asks. So it inevitably becomes a bit idiosyncratic how one responds. I like the people who sell Street Sheet. I don't give to the drug addicts with missing limbs (rightly or wrongly I think whoa you were shooting up so much your leg/arm got infected and had to be cut off jeezus). It may depend if I just got paid, or just reviewed my debts (sigh), or just spent a huge amount of time and money on my foster kids, or am thinking about the one foster kid who may not make it (which can go either way, either empathy or yikes I'd better save my money for the one I have to worry about). I think feeling good about giving to someone is an okay reason, too, though I agree that we should be aware of our motivation(s).
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:42 AM on December 7, 2008

The homeless men who seem able-bodied may have less visible serious disabilities: schizophrenia, PTSD, cancer, cirrhosis, dementia, or chronic pain, for example. Very few sane, healthy people choose a life on the streets. It's brutal and dangerous. And more typically, it's a last resort when all else has been taken away from them.
posted by terranova at 10:00 AM on December 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

My first introduction to Berkeley was in the afternoon after a conference had let out. The organizers had accidentally doubled their pizza order and a second stack of pizzas, piping hot, had just been delivered. Of course no one at the conference wanted to eat them so I grabbed them all and hurried downtown, where I had already seen many homeless people.

I tried for 30 minutes, but no one wanted the entirely uneaten pizza (some of it veggie, some of it with meat, none of the pies touched). I've tried a couple of times since then with either left overs or a granola bar or whatever, and I always get turned down.

"Cash or grass, man," is how one many put it. It makes me feel a lot less guilty about channeling my extra money to the Heifer foundation and other charities rather than offering it directly to people on the streets.
posted by arnicae at 10:02 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

*many should have been "man".
posted by arnicae at 10:10 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I've been homeless, and people who game me money meant that I could eat that day. Thanks to anyone in this thread who help people out directly.
posted by Jairus at 10:40 AM on December 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

arnicae, a lot of homeless people don't trust half-eaten food (you would be amazed what some people do to things they give the homeless), or they have dietary reasons why they won't eat it. If you offered to take those same homeless people to a take-out place and let them order something of their choice, I'm sure they'd take it.
posted by Jairus at 10:42 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

not to say that this is what has happened to the person you see, but there are many places in the world where beggars are not individuals, but groups. They go out begging and at the end of the day they go back to where ever the head quarters is and turn their money in. In return they are given food and shelter. Visibly disabled and children get better returns so sometimes they disfigure themselves and sometimes their bosses disfigure them. I have seen beggars so mangled that they could no longer beg themselves and had to have "friends" leading them around to pander for money.

If you feel you must help an individual, give them food, not money. Give them something they can use right away, not something that can be taken away.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 11:16 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you live in a large American city your sense that any particular homeless person has completely fallen through the cracks and has never received any kind of help or assistance is probably off the mark. The chronically street homeless are huge consumers of very expensive, tax payer funded services like emergency rooms, detoxes, psych crisis centers and prisons. Every point of contact they've had with the mental health, health and homeless services system is recorded and with the proper signed consent forms you could track down their entire history of interaction with these providers and see how extensively documented they actually are. Most urban chronically homeless men and women have had multiple intervention attempts by psychiatrists, nurses, social workers and charity organizations. It's a population that is highly resistant to the treatment, medication compliance and symptom management that most people who have overcome chronic homelessness have become willing to partake in.

Part of the problem with homeless service provision is that for years it was heavily focused on the kind of charity oriented efforts described in this thread. It took a long time to figure out that chronic homelessness is actually almost exclusively a mental health issue, and requires very intensive mental health provision coordinated with housing resources to overcome. In other words, blankets and sandwiches aren't the answer. For more information Google "housing first," "Pathways to Housing," or "Sam Tsemberis."
posted by The Straightener at 11:35 AM on December 7, 2008 [21 favorites]

Since I have three kids I almost always have some type of snack on me and since I live in NYC I see homeless people many times per day. I am teaching my kids that we give food and a smile and information on where to get a shower or a meal if they want it, but any money donated needs to go to an organization that knows what to do with it.

Otherwise, we do what we can for the greater good... participate in coat drives, bring cookies to the women's/children's shelter and sing carols with them, serve at the nearby soup kitchen once a month, etc etc etc throughout the year.

If I have no food on me and the situation is right (meaning if I have my kids with me, I must feel like the homeless person is not unstable or high, etc) then I offer two options to offset the money question. "Would you prefer coffee or a bottle of water?" "I am going into the deli, would you like a sandwich or soup?" And of course always ask what type of sandwich, or how they take their coffee. But this does not happen as often as just offering the apple or bag of animal crackers or granola bar from my bag. You can not always tell what's up with some people and I have my kids safety to think about, as well as modeling compassion.
posted by agentwills at 11:55 AM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I respect your feelings, your need to help those who are so unfortunate.

I'd just point out that if a person is together enough to do their begging at the same time and place on a weekly basis, that person is in far better shape than the neediest, most troubled people out there.

Have you considered doing some volunteering in your local soup kitchen / homeless shelter / busy public E/R or hospital? You can't solve all the world's problems, but I know that, at least for me, if I can think back on some situations where I helped it makes me feel better when I contemplate all the other situations where I can't effectively help.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:10 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I always give to the person directly, unless I can clearly see they are some kind of scammer. If I have any doubt about it, I just look at them and say, "I'm broke, too!"
posted by Grlnxtdr at 12:23 PM on December 7, 2008

The "costume designer" con dude sure gets around. About 6 years back or so I was waiting for a date outside a bar & grill restaurant in Union Square and some dude walks up to me and starts giving me this whole story about how he's a production assistant for some film crew and he's lost both his wallet and keys. He needs $20 to get uptown to get a spare set of keys so he "can do his freaking job, man" and get into a building. He almost had me but my date showed up.

All I can say is, "Great acting, dude!" Good story, good acting, totally believable.

Lastly, not all is what is appears to be. Apparently, most of the guys who man the "Help the Homeless" tables with big water jugs are pocketing most of the donations.

If some guy is disfigured, obviously down on his luck, missing limbs, etc. I would seriously consider giving him a buck or two. Everyone else, especially the able-bodied ones, can go get a job like the rest of us.

Another story: I walk the same route from Chelsea to Penn Station every day, to catch a train home back to NJ. Back in August or so a red-haired woman in sweatpants approached me as I was walking down 28th Street with a story that her purse was stolen and she needs bus fare home. I was in a hurry so I ignored her and kept going.

A month later, she approached me again and says, "Please, can you help me? My..."

I interrupt and say, "Let me guess, your purse was stolen and you need bus fare home."

She kind of just stares at me and gets this sheepish look on her face.

And I walked away.
posted by camworld at 2:38 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

There are probably at least as many bullshit artists working the street as there are working the boardroom, but you don't lose your house when you get scammed in the street.
posted by flabdablet at 4:49 PM on December 7, 2008 [5 favorites]

Depending on your city I think you're better off donating to charities that help the homeless - providing food, shelter, healthcare - than giving it to the homeless people directly (who will probably just drink/huff/inject it).
posted by The Monkey at 5:16 PM on December 7, 2008

Everyone else, especially the able-bodied ones, can go get a job like the rest of us.

Able-bodied isn't able-minded.
posted by The Monkey at 5:17 PM on December 7, 2008 [6 favorites]

I often choose to give in the form of food... when I was living in Manhattan, there used to be a core group of guys who hung out in Washington Square. My Thursday night ritual consisted of grabbing a pizza from whichever pizzeria had a special, and hanging out by the chess boards with whoever wanted a meal.

I also occasionally volunteered at local soup kitchens and the like. Perhaps volunteering would give you a sense of helping out, without seeking out individual cases?
posted by rachaelfaith at 5:35 PM on December 7, 2008

one thing that came to mind is that you're not in the US and it seems may not know exactly the situation with homeless and resources etc there. some of the people above commented that maybe there are other shelters/food places etc but where you live that may not be the case. also, its possible there that there really doesnt seem to be any option for someone like him other than to beg. check that stuff out... if you find out there are really nice services or govt money etc at his availability it may change the guilt you feel towards him

i also live somewhere where i felt the homeless situation may be different from the US. after a while (and feeling bad in realizing its really hard to find a job as a disabled person) i pay attention to what the people say and do. I dont have enough money to give to everyone and feeling bad all the time is no good either-- I no longer feel slightly bad about the seemingly fit man who has the "temporarily out of work" sign for the 3rd year in a row. I never give to the teenage homeless punks that sit around partying on the street while asking for money. The unemployable disabled or really elderly still get to me though.
People have told me of studies and interviews which showed that (at least some of them) they were making wayyyy more money sitting out on the street than what getting a job would pay, more than I make. (if im giving because i feel bad for and want to help them...what would that mean in this case?)

but overall im a big fan of the give food idea, or talk to the people in a real conversation, figure out what they need etc.
posted by nzydarkxj at 5:38 PM on December 7, 2008

You give to panhandlers regardless. If I have casg on me, I always do. I don't care if it's a scam or not. It does not matter to me.
posted by Zambrano at 7:56 PM on December 7, 2008

posted by Zambrano at 7:56 PM on December 7, 2008

My belief system is such that if I noticed the guy and felt so strongly about him, I'd think it was for a reason and try to do whatever I could. And next to what you did, I'd only suggest making a habit of having contact with him - even if you can't really talk. You can still communicate that you care, and that may be more helpful than anything.

Isn't it weird that we assume the homeless will use cash to buy alcohol or drugs, and that it's our responsibility to save them from themselves, or that they only deserve our compassion if they meet our standards? Meanwhile we all give cash as gifts to our teenage relatives without a second thought and no real way to know what they spend it on. Would love to see some statistics on that investment.
posted by shopefowler at 10:22 PM on December 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Can you take someone to translate and talk to the guy about what he might need? You don't need to give it all to him, but find out what he needs and then maybe do some research and see if there's a way to get those things for him.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:27 AM on December 8, 2008

I live in New York, and I decided a long time ago that I would give to people for my own idiosyncratic reasons and consider the money theirs to do with as they wish once I've given it. Meaning, if I feel driven to give money to someone for some reason, I don't worry that they'll spend it on drugs or alcohol or food. Giving money directly is micro, not macro, and is only going to help the person in the very short term, so you have to be comfortable with that or you shouldn't give money.

I'm also very very familiar with the social services here in NYC, and I'm much less likely to give to someone with a sob story on the train than someone who is straight up begging. Because usually the sob story (especially people who talk about their kids) has a some glaring holes in it if you know anything about the city's safety net. Now, if someone came on and said, "My kids and I are homeless and we don't like the shelter they put us in," then they might get my money.

And, yes, google Housing First if you want to know where to donate to help the chronic homeless.
posted by Mavri at 10:04 AM on December 8, 2008

You know, I was actually homeless once. I think there is a sense that what homeless people is a little human connection, and I hear people talk all the time about stopping to talk to the homeless, to treat them like they are human.

I think this comes from noble sentiments, but the truth is that most panhandlers have friends. They're not looking to you for a kind word. They're looking to you for money.

I discourage my friends from giving money, because many panhandlers are drug addicts or alcoholics, and giving them money does not help them, but participates in the self-destruction. Speaking from my own experiences with the homeless community, what homeless people need is well-funded shelters that provide health care. Failing that, they need food and a place to sleep. And I know a lot of people who give money to panhandlers but do not give money to shelters and associated programs. So they are indirectly funding the liquor industry, which does not need their money, rather than putting those funds toward programs that offer genuine help to the homeless.

That being said, I don't believe in being a heartless bastard. I will give spare change if I sense an immediate real need -- and, if you have lived in a city for any length of time, you've heard the cons, and sometimes you get the feeling that this one is genuine, this one really wants to get back home to Iowa, or this one really is just trying to get money to buy food for his kids. Dunno. Maybe they are just exceptional con artist and that money is going to crack cocaine, but I sort of doubt it. So I give to those people.

But you're going to do a lot more good giving food to a food shelf than a quarter to a panhandler, just as a rule of thumb.

By the way, the panhandlers I know ducking hate it when you give them food. Food is generally easy to get, if you'rew willing to stand in line, and it's not what they are after. Unless you are deliberately trying to fuck with them, just don't give anything, or buy cans of food and give to a food shelf. It will be cheaper and will go to people who actually want it.
posted by Astro Zombie at 10:49 AM on December 8, 2008 [7 favorites]

Have you ever heard about Toronto's Shaky Lady?

There are con artists out there, and there are people who should be making constructive efforts to improve their lives, rather than sticking their hands out. I don't give money to people whom I regularly see begging. I sometimes will give small amounts of money to someone if I think they deserve the benefit of the doubt, and I occasionally offer to buy food for people, but usually, I would much rather give to a properly organized charity.

I can take this stance because I know Toronto does have a boatload of programs for the homeless. It would be different if the homeless truly had no other options than begging.
posted by orange swan at 12:12 PM on December 8, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was on a bus stop once and this disheveled woman asked me for a dollar. I demurred, because I was cranky that day and didn't want to be bothered on my way to work. She yelled at me and repeatedly demanded to know whether I had children (??). I replied that I didn't, and she continued to yell and berated me for starving her children. So fine, I gave her a dollar to get her to go away. She went across the street to Starbucks. I guess her children needed coffee.

The next time I encountered a homeless guy, it was a hot day, and I was on my way to a deli. He asked for money and I ignored him. Once inside the deli, I felt badly, so I bought him a cold bottle of water and a sandwich. I never saw such a look of gratitude.
posted by desjardins at 12:34 PM on December 8, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you can't afford things for yourself or whatever, don't give people money. If you can afford it, give it to them if that's what they're asking for. I've given people pennies, dimes, quarters, $20, $50, whatever I had and could be without when our paths crossed. It's just fucking money.

I mean, truly. A guy with burns and no hands? Someone standing out in the cold without shoes? A teen in nice clothes that is actually *asking* for handouts? If the money means nothing to you, hand it over. So you'll have one less beer this week. So you'll take the TTC instead of a cab one time. So "I worked for that money and he can't even get a job at McDonald's" might cross your mind minutes after you hand it over. It's fucking money. And if you're like the vast majority of people who can afford an internet connection and can be sitting here in the middle of the fucking day you'll have more of it soon enough.

About a month ago in Toronto we had an out-of-character freezing ass day. I'm on the subway and there's some guy in the raggady-assed looking coat I've ever seen in my life. Looking at him made me feel fucking cold. He wasn't asking for shit, just trying to mind his own business, probably praying to God that fuckers like me would please just stop looking at him. To the aghast reaction of my fellow riders, I offered to swap coats with him. People were seriously looking at me like I was mad. I noticed it, he noticed it. He couldn't not. You could see the, "Please don't encourage the homeless to ride the public transit with us!" looks on their faces. The man declined though it was painfully clear he didn't want to. I should have just taken off my coat and left it on his lap. Instead, I got off at my stop and said "Fuck you" to the woman who was giving me the most evil look. I've been so mad at myself since and from now on will steadfastly refuse to ever again let the jeering gaze of strangers (or friends!) affect my decisions.

So yeah, fuck your friend and his "they don't really need it" bullshit. Let your heart lead decisions like the one you were trying to make. The brain is pisspoor when it comes to compassion.
posted by Manhasset at 1:13 PM on December 8, 2008 [7 favorites]

I try three approaches:

1. Donate to a local homeless organization (any or all of: money, goods, time)
2. Offer directly to buy food or give clothing to the person
3. Cash is the next-to-last option

Ignoring the invisible people dehumanizes me.

posted by mdoar at 2:24 PM on December 8, 2008

This is a great thread. I'd like to add some thoughts from my 5+ years of work doing Food Not Bombs in my hometown which has a pretty high rate of homelessness and hunger.

Homelessness is a systemic problem. It it nice to give to individual people, but it's better to work towards broader changes. You can start by working a the city level. Advocating for homelessness at the city level, and not letting your city councils/governing boards get off on decreasing funding for shelters and meal programs in this tough economy is important.

As is donating food/money/volunteer hours to your local food bank (if your community is lucky enough to have one). Most food banks support all of the other organizations which give food to the hungry, so helping them, can have a really big impact on your community.

On a personal activist level, start a Food Not Bombs. It's not honestly not that hard. What you will need:

- Gather a couple friends, pick a day you all have free to do the cooking/serving

- Ask a couple local grocery stores to donate the unsold produce that they throw away when it gets spots to you once a week on the day of your serving.

- Post up fliers advertising Free Food and calling for volunteers.

- Get a folding table and some big pots and serving implements on the cheap from a Goodwill

- Take up a collection for old tofu/cream cheese/whatever plastic containers and plastic spoons and forks

- Pick a day to have the serving, and a public park to do it in.

- Get your friends together at your/their house. Start cooking at 2. Make soup, stew, chili, salad, pasta, stuffing, mashed potatoes. Anything you can come up with. Laugh, make fun of the weird conglom of ingredients you're coming up with, and have a good time cooking.

- At 4:45 fill 3 food grade buckets with hot water: 1 water + dish soap, 1 water, 1 water + bleach

- Load everything into your car

- Set up in the park at 5.

- Talk to the people who come to the serving. Encourage them to help with set up, clean up, serving, or cooking if you feel comfortable with them at your house.

I spent 5 years of Sundays doing Food Not Bombs and met a lot of amazing people doing it. The benefits of an action like this is that it gives you a direct correlation between problem and solution. Food is being thrown away by grocery stores. People are going hungry outside of those stores. Putting the two together is an effective way to help people and eliminate waste. Plus, you get to eat good food and hang out with your friends on a regular basis doing something that feels good.

A woman came up to me one week, who I recognized from many other weeks of servings and told me that her dinner with us was her only serving of vegetables for the week. If you can help make that happen for someone else, do it.
posted by nerdcore at 2:29 PM on December 8, 2008 [4 favorites]

I struggle with this as well - here in Edinburgh we know that people come to the city every summer to beg because there are so many tourists during the Festivals and they can do really well out of it, so it colours your impression all year round of people on the street. It doesn't help that they're the most polite beggers in the world, and call after you when you walk by every day "thanks anyway, god bless you!" I often break down in the wintertime and drop money in front of them, mainly because I figure anyone who is willing to sit in the Scottish cold all day deserves a tip for the effort, even if they are conning me.

I donate every month to Modest Needs because they try to prevent people from ending up on the streets, and I love their points allocation system that lets me read the stories of people that need help and spread my money between them. If you haven't looked into Modest Needs, I highly recommend it -- you can give the same amount that you would have given someone on the street, but you're confident that the person really does need it and you can see the impact it's going to have.
posted by ukdanae at 2:44 AM on December 10, 2008 [1 favorite]

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