Celebratory charity?
July 25, 2011 5:44 PM   Subscribe

I just got a fulltime job and I am moving to California- one dream I've always had, when I finally got some money, is giving out $20 and $50 bills to homeless people in Manhattan. Where would be the best place to do this? Or go about it?

Instead of buying myself a going away present, I'd sort of like to find some cool people who would appreciate it. I'd like to give it to them in a "I just got a job in California, I'm celebrating tonight, here you go, celebrate with me however you want" and then move on.

Maybe I'm crazy.
posted by ejfox to Human Relations (50 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
If you're crazy then you're not alone...I don't have any Manhattan-specific suggestions but maybe this will inspire you or give you ideas.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 5:51 PM on July 25, 2011

This sounds like a good way to get mugged in a hurry. Why not donate it to a homeless shelter? At least you know where it's going that way.
posted by Fister Roboto at 5:57 PM on July 25, 2011 [18 favorites]

Find a homeless person. Give them money and your schpiel. Walk 10-15 minutes; repeat. Etc.
posted by rtha at 5:58 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I don't want to burst your bubble, but if you really want to make a difference in the lives of the homeless, consider giving your money to a homeless shelter rather than randomly distributing money on the street. Sure, it might not give you that "I've done something good" feeling that seeing someone's face when you give them money might provide, but it would be far more beneficial. Maybe you could turn up at a local shelter and donate the money, and stick around to see what they do and what your money will be used for?

I suppose it depends on why you want to do this - is it for you or for the recipients?
posted by finding.perdita at 6:00 PM on July 25, 2011 [9 favorites]

I think this is a big gesture that won't actually make anyone involved feel better. Is there no one in your daily life--barista, waitress, drugstore clerk, etc.--who's been helpful or kind to you? If you've never encountered anyone who's enhanced your life--sure go hand it out to some guy on the street.
posted by Ideefixe at 6:00 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Plenty of homeless people in Tompkins Square Park.
posted by griphus at 6:03 PM on July 25, 2011

How much, total, are you looking to donate?
posted by The World Famous at 6:04 PM on July 25, 2011

I would suggest a contribution to the St. Francis breadline.
posted by jgirl at 6:04 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Take a bunch of cab rides and give big tips to the best cabbies. There are some nice ones, and they work really hard.
posted by yarly at 6:04 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just as an answer, I wouldn't approach this is philanthropy, and I'm willing to hear your thoughts on the ethics of that. I've just walked past a lot of homeless people as a kid and thought "if I had a bunch of money like those dudes in suits I'd totally give these guys $20s, it'd make their day, and they could do it" and now I am capable of doing it so I wanna try it out.

Mostly I just want to have some people celebrating thinking about me. I don't care how they celebrate, and I don't have to hear about it. I just want to have the thought that 5-6 people had a good night on my dime as I drive away to California.
posted by ejfox at 6:06 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Are you ok with them using the money for drugs or booze?
posted by yarly at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2011 [4 favorites]

@yarly it's funny you mention that, because on the cab rides I took to/from the city for a business meeting that helped me get my job, I tried to tip well for my cab rides. $7 cab ride, gave 'em a $20 and told him to keep it. That what you're talking about?

And I am very okay with them using it for drugs and booze if that's what they think it's best for.
posted by ejfox at 6:07 PM on July 25, 2011

If you really want to do this, I'd just advise you to not go alone. Someone with a lot of available cash, passing it around, could get you into a sketchy situation.
posted by xingcat at 6:09 PM on July 25, 2011

You may or may not find this relevant: when my boyfriend and I moved to CA a few months ago, we gave several bags of books and DVDs to a woman who sometimes panhandled near our local grocery store. Per her request...they were easy for her to sell, but less of a target for theft than cash.

I think lots of people will tell you that giving to individual homeless people isn't helpful. I disagree. Much of the NY homeless population is unwilling or unable to engage with shelter services - frequently due to substance abuse and/or mental illness - and giving to shelters won't necessarily help them. $20 or $50 will bring a bit of joy and comfort into the lives of people who really have very little of both. Just please don't give to that guy who tells the really bad jokes while panhandling on the subway, or the guy who has been "about to start work" for at least the last four years.
posted by psycheslamp at 6:11 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

I have been homeless, I have lived on the streets and interacted with the homeless thoroughly.

I have worked with them together, scammed, and begged for change with them.

If you go up to a random homeless person in NYC chances are very high you'll be donating to alcohol or drugs.

Your money would be much better spent by donating to your favorite charity, but no you wouldn't get that feel good feeling nor would you feel like a saint for a few minutes while another human being seems to worship you.

But you would be doing more overall good.
posted by Patrick Leo at 6:12 PM on July 25, 2011 [11 favorites]

Yes, that qualifies as a very nice tip!

The thing about the street homeless is that they are in very bad shape, usually. Drug addicted, mentally ill, often both. So you are not really going to get the kind of response you are expecting. But I think you should do it anyway, see what happens, and continue being a generous person.
posted by yarly at 6:14 PM on July 25, 2011

Go to an inexpensive restaurant (a diner, for example) by yourself. Order and eat an inexpensive meal - keep it well under $20. Then leave a $150 tip. The server will be far more grateful to you than any panhandler will be. And the server at an inexpensive restaurant works hard for long hours in a thankless, frustrating job that doesn't pay enough.
posted by The World Famous at 6:19 PM on July 25, 2011 [21 favorites]

I think the best way to do it would be totally anonymously. Write a little note, wrap it in a $20 and go find a hat to drop it in.

But. I agree that a better tactic in terms of return on investment would be a low paid service worker. When I was a kid my single mom worked in a diner to barely squeak through school. Some guy tipped her the change of a $50 for a piece of pie and a cup of coffee - his tab had been less than a dollar. She chased him out thinking it had been a mistake, but it wasn't. Mom got the impression that this was just something that this guy did from time to time. 

$50 (in perhaps 1978) was a LOT of money to us, and it bought groceries and goodwill and a short respit from the financial wolf that was always scratching at our door in those days. It was like Christmas in August. 

Now, surely, $50 would be big money to a homeless person too, but I expect your direct donation could (only?) go to a hot meal or so, or a night in a flop (in Manhattan? I don't know), or a few rounds of the intoxicant of choice. But to someone who is seriously working poor, $50 could be the difference between making it that week, and not. That amount of money can't buy you a seat at the game if you are out, but it can keep you IN the game if you are barely hanging on. Talk about making someone's day.
posted by dirtdirt at 6:23 PM on July 25, 2011 [33 favorites]

@The World Famous I like that a lot, I think that might even be better. Those people are definitely working hard.

Maybe my ego is showing, but I liked the idea of letting the people know why I was giving the money. I sorta wanna invite them to celebrate with me, is that possible?
posted by ejfox at 6:24 PM on July 25, 2011

You might appreciate reading And You Shall Know Our Velocity.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:28 PM on July 25, 2011

NPR did a profile a while back of some of the "homeless" people in NYC and found that some of them were making over $50k tax free from their various "jobs" - panhandling, selling magazines, windshield washing scams, etc. And of course the profiled people weren't homeless - far from it.

There are a lot of people in NYC and around the world that desperately need help. Spend some time learning how to really help. Or if you want to have a nice ego trip, leave a great tip. Or get involved in nonprofits once you arrive in California.
posted by b1tr0t at 6:29 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

Have you considered donating $20 worth of grocery store gift cards, food, or clothing instead of actual cash? It seems more responsible and safer for both you and the recipient of your goodwill. It's also what they actually need. Doing this would still give you the satisfaction of directly helping someone.

Mostly I just want to have some people celebrating thinking about me. I don't care how they celebrate, and I don't have to hear about it. I just want to have the thought that 5-6 people had a good night on my dime as I drive away to California.

Unless you're going to be giving enough money to pull these people out of their circumstances, they're not going to be celebrating because you gave them twenty bucks. They're trying to survive out there.

I sorta wanna invite them to celebrate with me, is that possible?

Then do that. Find a homeless person and invite him or her to grab a bite to eat with you in celebration. Buy their dinner and listen to their story. I know someone who does this regularly. It takes more bravery than just handing them bills, and it's kinder and better for both of you than saying, "Here's a Jackson. Now, think of me while you get wasted!"
posted by katillathehun at 6:30 PM on July 25, 2011 [7 favorites]

When I worked for Borders we often got T-shirts as promotional material.

We got these Microsoft T-shirts where you could get one with Windows 95 logo on it if you bought two Microsoft titled books. Thing is we couldn't give them away. Even people who accidentally bought two Microsoft books had no interest in the shirts. So the promotion ends, and we have all these shirts. I decided to grab them for myself. I was thinking, "Kickass. I now have to do laundry like once a year!"

Some homeless guy hit me up for cash or change and I said, "No, but you can have a shirt." He asked if he could have one for his friend. When I said sure he called out to these guys who came out from under this bridge. There were like 15 guys down there.

All said and done I think they took all but a few.

Anyway, what I am saying is that money not such a great idea. Buy one a sandwich or some shoes or pas out some things that they actually need that won't get you mugged.
posted by cjorgensen at 6:32 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I just want to have some people celebrating thinking about me.

Do you have friends, family or other loved ones who would value the all-too-rare opportunity to celebrate good news in the life of someone they care about?

I think this is a wonderful opportunity to be charitable, and there's good guidance in the answers above, but "making it rain" just for the show of it may not yield the long-term feel-good effect you're looking for here.
posted by mauvest at 6:35 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

It is a nice thought just do it and have fun. Congrats on the new job and best wishes for the move to California!
posted by InkaLomax at 6:44 PM on July 25, 2011

Mccny runs a homeless youth shelter for lgbtqq youth.

Please give them $50 worth of one day bus/subway passes.

These kids are homeless bc their parents kicked them out or abused them. For being gay. You want an ego boost? Help these kids get to job interviews and mental health services, because that's what those passes get used for.
posted by bilabial at 6:48 PM on July 25, 2011 [21 favorites]

As a New Yorker, I would ask you to donate the money to an actual charity, please. They have been squeezed in the last few years and can use the money. I know people who work at the Food Bank, parks organizations, etc.
posted by sweetkid at 6:54 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am infatuated with The World Famous' response. You absolutely must go to a dinky little diner, have some soup, and leave a fabulous tip. But please have a nice conversation with the waiter, too. Meaningful human connections can be worth as much as money to some people.

"I left an enormous tip. I shall never forget my waiter. He kept trying to speak Italian, even though he knew I was French. He kept mentioning his daughters. He wore glasses that made him look too old. He loved being a waiter. He said that each meal was a memory. He said that he was a part of something good that had not started with him and would not end with him. As I left the restaurant, I felt a stabbing sadness. I would never see him again." -Simon Van Booy, Love Begins in Winter

Have that kind of experience! Congrats on the job.
posted by keasby at 6:55 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

I've been homeless. I helped found a union for the homeless in ABQ, NM in '89. I have known many, many, many homeless people (relatives, even).

Because of this experience with this population, I would implore you to find another way to get your celebratory jollies on. Not because I don't think the transient shouldn't have recreational funds or whatever, but because I wouldn't want someone's OD or alcohol poisoning on your karmic load when you were trying to do something happy. Nor would I want your moment to be the genesis of harm coming to them or someone else, which is made more likely if they are intoxicated/possess intoxicants. It can be dangerous to be "altered" when on the streets, and that's a LOT of money for folks for whom money management is often a challenge. Temptation is hard to resist, and they might be working hard at resisting. You'd have no way of knowing.

If you really, really, really want to do something like this, physical items they can secure on their person to make them more comfortable/safe would go so much farther - hell, socks are a big deal when you're at that point, as others have pointed out. Imagine handing each one a backpack with packs of socks & t-shirts, a blanket, edible treats, and something fun or interesting (tiny flashlights, pads, pencils, and stamps were super popular when I was out there) - that'd be a gleeful gift, indeed. But, yeah, take someone with you.

Essentially, as much as I don't want to say this, I'm with those who are suggesting you donate to a shelter, food line, or emergency services provider, perhaps in an obvious way where you can enjoy their excitement. My experience in that realm behooves me to request a preference for places that don't force the recipients to sit through a sermon or commit to a religious viewpoint before relief is administered (difficult but doable).
posted by batmonkey at 6:59 PM on July 25, 2011 [13 favorites]

For 50 bucks a person - you could open them a checking account, set em up a paypal account, an email address, make a blogspot site with their picture and story on it - and buy them hundreds of business cards to hand out to people. With the email address to donate - on the card. It would be a long term solution for many of these people.
posted by Bighappyfunhouse at 7:00 PM on July 25, 2011

Have to second all of the above who say don't do it. I have worked for years in a food pantry, and 90% of the guys who came in couldn't be trusted with even a dime because they would drink it, shoot it, snort it, or save it until they had enough to do those things. Even giving some of them too much food at one time was a mistake because we caught them selling canned goods on the street. Yes, donate to a homeless shelter. If you reeeeaally want that personal contact, maybe make a bunch of bag lunches and give those out - just not cash.
posted by brownrd at 7:07 PM on July 25, 2011

You probably won't going to get mugged if you do this (during the day, without showing that you've got plenty more where that $20 came from).

Everyone is certainly right in saying that you could do more good donating to charity, but it doesn't sound like you're really in it for the charity, which is fine, it's your money and you want this experience for whatever reason.

However, along the lines of TWF's suggestion, I like the idea of finding a subway or street performer who you like, preferably one who doesn't seem to be making a lot of money, and slipping them a $50. You'll be encouraging someone to keep at something they love.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

won't aren't going to
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 7:25 PM on July 25, 2011

Go to a grocery store in a lower-income area and wait until some harried-looking person with kids in tow goes through the checkout lane. Buy their groceries for them.
posted by phunniemee at 7:36 PM on July 25, 2011 [20 favorites]

Keep in mind a large amount of homeless people are mentally ill.
I used to give food and money out in Boston until, for the second time, I was screamed at. One man kept following me threatening to kill me. A second time a lady berated me and said she didn't need my charity.
So... keep that in mind.
Eventually I started donating to a homeless shelter and volunteering at various places instead.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:58 PM on July 25, 2011

Maybe my ego is showing, but I liked the idea of letting the people know why I was giving the money. I sorta wanna invite them to celebrate with me, is that possible?

Then leave a $100 tip and a note on a napkin explaining why you're celebrating.

If you handed me $100 to my face and then stuck around to make conversation, (1) I'd feel compelled out of politeness to try to give it back to you; (2) I'd wonder what the catch was, what you wanted from me or were trying to get in return. The best way to say "This is a gift, I won't let you refuse it, and there's no strings attached" is to give cash and walk away.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:01 PM on July 25, 2011 [5 favorites]

You could give out a cheap backpack with a bottle of vodka, some mixers, a pack of smokes, clean socks and undershirts?

Lots of 'OMG, no. They'll spend it on booze and/or drugs.' And so what? They'll have a nicer evening for it. If I was sleeping rough and had lost my mind a bit to boot I'm pretty sure booze and/or drugs would be a grand present.

The agencies helping the homeless are not above reproach. It's an industry like any other; people make careers out of managing indigents. How much change they are effecting is sometimes debatable. It's okay to give right to a bum instead of their perceived managers.
posted by kmennie at 8:27 PM on July 25, 2011

"They'll have a nicer evening for it"


Please, whatever you do, don't do that. It's a good way to get beaten up and robbed, having something so obviously "valuable." The homeless assumption would likely be "new backpack, handle of vodka, carton is cigarettes = must have cash on him too"

Also, this is called enabling. Well, he's going to get drunk anyway, might as well speed the process along. Or, he's miserable, might as well make him comfortable for now. It's not a healthy relationship for the recipient and it's not especially healthy for the enabler.
posted by bilabial at 8:48 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

phunniemee's idea is wonderful. you'd get what you want along with the laudatory reactions of those around the recipient(s) and far less risk to all involved.

kmennie: they can die, that's what. maybe i'm sensitive to it after seeing too many lost to alcohol poisoning or finally getting a huge 8-ball after a couple years off or being beaten to death by jealous "compadres", but i'm okay with being sensitive to that.

OP: i should have mentioned water bottles - those are so freaking handy when you're on the street!
posted by batmonkey at 8:52 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

I am very much with finding.perdita here. If one really wants to help homeless people one should volunteer at a shelter or similar organization. Giving cash out to homeless people at random is a meaningless gesture that is sure to appease inner feelings of guilt at earning a lot of money but otherwise useless.

My experience: I used to be fairly well off. Felt guilty at all the homeless people so much worse off than I . Started giving out cash then started chatting up the people I ave the money to. Found out that close to half of them had a place to sleep and a source of welfare income and just needed money for beer and drugs. Began giving out fast food certificates instead - that about a third of the people that I offered them to refused to accept.

Six years after that I became homeless myself and discovered that 50+% of the people in shelters are just people who do not want to work and are content to do drugs and sponge off others.

So don't kid yourself , If you want to give out cash go for it but don't pretend to yourself that you are making a difference. If you want to do something that will actually help but will take more time than giving out a twenty dollar bill go volunteer at some shelter that really helps people get jobs and get off the streets . Granted, you probably won't look as good in a hair net dealing out food onto plates as you would handing out a twenty dollar bill in a suit and tie.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 8:54 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Jon Carroll calls this, "The Untied Way". He writes about it every year around the holidays, but of course the idea is valid year-round. I do it when I can. Go for it.
posted by trip and a half at 9:15 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Oh, and to address finding.perdita and Poet_Lariat's point, which is a valid perspective, here's what Carroll writes (from that link):

Now, it may be, you will say, that some of our clients may not use the money you give them wisely. They may buy drugs or alcohol; they may give it to someone who turns out to be less than trustworthy. Perhaps you feel you should not be an "enabler."

"Enable" used to be a good word. It meant "give power or strength to." Once through the psychobabble machine, and now it means "help people destroy themselves and their families." It has its uses in that context, but it can still just mean "help." I mean, who are you to tell people how to make it through the night? You're providing temporary succor, just as all charities are providing temporary succor.

Human beings help other human beings. We give the other people the human dignity of deciding what they can use the money for. It might not be our choice, but then we have someplace warm and dry to go home to. We have a bed. We are just trying to level the playing field a little bit.

That's the way I view it. YMMV.
posted by trip and a half at 9:22 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

So don't kid yourself , If you want to give out cash go for it but don't pretend to yourself that you are making a difference. If you want to do something that will actually help but will take more time than giving out a twenty dollar bill go volunteer at some shelter that really helps people get jobs and get off the streets
"Just as an answer, I wouldn't approach this is philanthropy... ...Mostly I just want to have some people celebrating thinking about me."
I have to say, this question brought to mind this flyer from Kathmandu.
posted by blueberry at 9:36 PM on July 25, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just please don't give to that guy who tells the really bad jokes while panhandling on the subway, or the guy who has been "about to start work" for at least the last four years......and not the one who "sings" in the N and R who I recently discovered fakes his blindness.

Nthing everyone who says not to enable and those who suggest treating your favorite service industry workers.
posted by brujita at 9:47 PM on July 25, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is totally do-able. There's a guy that dresses up like Santa and hands out $100 bills up here in Portland every Christmas.

I imagine he doesn't get mugged because if he did the person that mugged him would be set upon by the crowd like a pack of wolves might to someone in a meat coat. The article says he did this at the Goodwill, but I've also heard of him doing this a couple blocks away near the homeless shelters (I've also hear rumors that his older son now does the actual money-handing-out while he sits 50ft. away in an idling SUV with tinted windows and just watches the expressions on the recipients' faces.

If there is one thing you can be forgiven for being grand about, it's your generosity.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:26 PM on July 25, 2011

If you really want that 'yay, I made a difference' rush, I've found that people at food banks are really grateful when you deliver a bunch of groceries. Donations really slow down after the holidays, so it would be a great time to contact them and see what they could use. If it's important for you to see the results of your gift, stick around and volunteer to help distribute. Good luck with your new job!

Being the recipient of charity is really... complicated, especially when it's more about the giver than the receiver. Don't be surprised if it's not as heartwarming as you may imagine.
posted by Space Kitty at 11:40 PM on July 25, 2011 [3 favorites]

Again -- find the person who is counting their nickels, not the person who is too high to notice whether they have any or not. They will think of you with gratitude and jubilation many more times than someone who is too out of it to remember.
posted by salvia at 12:53 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

I still remember giving only 2 pounds to a homeless man on a cold night in London many years ago. I had next to no money or work and was a long way in debt myself, two quid was more than I could afford but it was near christmas, I was lonely and it seemed he needed it more than I. The expression of thanks and surprise will always live with me I think.

He may have spent it on alcohol, but then there's a fair chance I would have done the same. It is not for me to judge that, we all have our dependencies and remedies - sometimes they are one and the same.

I can't offer much in the way of advice for New York but ethically you're ok in my book.
posted by deadwax at 5:52 AM on July 26, 2011 [1 favorite]

Re: celebrating with you. You want a homeless person to celebrate that you got a job? And/or you want them to celebrate $20 bucks? 20 bucks that will disappear in a day, and will help for a few hours, and that they know won't change anything for them?

I think your expectations of the naivety or selflessness of homeless people is a bit ... something. Your expectations are out of whack.
posted by Kololo at 10:15 AM on July 26, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you want someone to celebrate your new job with you, take a bunch of your friends out for dinner and drinks and pick up the tab.
posted by The World Famous at 10:29 AM on July 26, 2011 [2 favorites]

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