Giving money to panhandler
August 5, 2022 3:30 AM   Subscribe

I like to give a few bucks here and there to a panhandler I see every day. Should I stop? Should I give him more money?

Boss sits on the corner of Brigham circle in Boston. He's pretty well dressed, and I think social services in Boston are really good that he has housing and a home. He doesn't have a sign, he loiters on the same steps every day, asking passerbys for money. He's not confrontational, but he is a little pushy, asking people for for "anything they got", then asking for bills larger than ones (5s, 10s, 20s) once they seem to be grabbing some cash. I call it "the upsell".

Part of me respects the hustle. I asked his name once and he said "I don't have a name". Not surprising I bet he's been in trouble for loitering in the past.

I try to save $10 bills for him but cash is fleeting in today's society. When I do get some cash, it's fun to give it to this guy. When I have cash and he's not sitting in his spot, I'm actually disappointed!

He's almost definitely spending the cash on cigarettes, weed, and liquor. But - doesn't everyone deserve a cold beer on a hot day?

I have a charity budget. I prefer giving people cash from my charity budget rather than giving it to some nameless nonprofit that can hire another graphic designer with the money. I have like $2k extra in that budget right now.

So. Askmefi is a very affirming group, and I know there's people out here with a lot more experience being and helping panhandlers than I have.

Should I give this guy $2000? Or stick to $10 every week or two? Or should I stop doing that as well?

Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty in a way that not giving him cash would motivate him to change his life for the better?
posted by bbqturtle to Work & Money (40 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty in a way that not giving him cash would motivate him to change his life for the better?

No. This is not in your power either way. If not having money was all he needs to have motivation to get off the street, he's got no lack of motivation.

This guy is an adult. He gets to make his own choices. I don't think there's any harm in you giving him money. You might want to consider donating your money and time to a homeless shelter or other organisation if you want, in addition to this, but you're not doing any harm by giving him money.
posted by Zumbador at 3:44 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]

OK, first of all: karma says you should do this. Or "if not for the grace of God", etc. for a Christian perspective. Personally I am an atheist, but kind and generous people have helped me all through my life with no expectation of return, because that is the nature of community and humanity and that is what we are meant to do.

Second. I have worked with homeless people in a period of my life, and it's a long story that I can't really tell right now, but I suggest you keep on giving him that ten dollar bill perhaps on regular days. First of all: he is a panhandler because he cannot organize himself or his money. Second, every single one of the homeless people I talked with back then, told me the recognition was the most important part of their interactions with other people. They really didn't mind if someone just gave them a penny, because even that was an acknowledgement that they were there, and part of society. (Though obviously, they preferred having more than a penny). If you come every Thursday with ten dollars, you are there, and human, someone he can count on, in an existence where that is rare.

Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty in a way that not giving him cash would motivate him to change his life for the better?
This is the wrongest wrong I know about vulnerable people. I know it is probably a retorical question from you, but I am taking this opportunity to rant a bit. Almost all people want to be part of a community, to be useful and be remembered. Being outside offers only hardship. There is a double-edged romanticism about the life on the edge, that both appeals to some young people who are fed up with all the BS in their lives and shocks those who want to be shocked. But the reality of that life is not romantic.
posted by mumimor at 3:47 AM on August 5 [32 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, my primary question is on the merits of giving him a larger sum of money to help him even more. That is the question I am primarily debating, however I do have uncertainty about the entire concept.
posted by bbqturtle at 3:57 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]

My wife is always like “look, I was gonna spend it on beer anyway.” If you would buy your mate a beer on Friday night, there’s nothing wrong with buying a friendly stranger a beer once a week too.
posted by joycehealy at 4:33 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]

Maybe ask him?
posted by spindrifter at 4:36 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]

Your cash, your choice. I'd suggest keeping to the $10s just out of financial prudence for yourself.
posted by kingdead at 4:37 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]

It all depends on how comfortable you are having a conversation (or several) with him.

If you're not comfortable talking to him, keep up with the $10 exchanges, which I'm sure he appreciates and it sounds like you do to.

If you are willing to chat and listen, you can find out how wanted the money would be. He might have large bills or things he needs that it would help with. Or he may be afraid to have that amount of cash on him, for more reasons than I could list. Please don't dump that amount and run.
posted by Adifferentbear at 5:44 AM on August 5 [7 favorites]

I think that although it would be great to give him the windfall -- there is no guarantee he'd see this as you do, as a substitute for a weekly donation, and then it would not be worth having to say "no" every week when you pass by after that, and not to come up with another windfall before a year's time (if you even wanted to do it again next year) if he tells you, say, that he was robbed or lost it some other way. So I would stick with the generosity of your regular predictable routine.
Maybe give him a few hundred of this sum at Christmas though, with an explicit "Happy Holidays" so it's not going to be expected again the next week.
posted by ojocaliente at 5:48 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]

I would stick with the status quo. It's working for you, it's working* for him. Maybe chat a bit with him next time, or for bonus points see if he wants to go buy some tallboys at the bodega and drink them together. That's the way I've learned the most about a panhandling person as well as how they see the needs of their community in that place and time.

(I think you know what I mean; obviously things are not working great for this guy, but you handing him a $10 with decent frequency and generally just acknowledging his existence without malice is sure appreciated)
posted by SaltySalticid at 6:10 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]

Your generosity is really admirable. What I'd ask is how you envision a one-time gift of $2000 being helpful to him. I know you aren't going to tell him what to do, but what is your best case scenario for this? Theoretically, it's maybe a few months rent (depending on where you live), but then the money is gone and he's back to where he was. Any other use (clothes for a job interview?) would probably also require a lot of additional support from people with experience working with this population. Most people in any situation don't handle windfalls in a way that's helpful long term (see many stories about lottery winners who go bankrupt).

And as others have noted, I'd be concerned that so much money would make him a target for thieves.

Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty in a way that not giving him cash would motivate him to change his life for the better?

If anything, I think it would be more motivating to have someone showing care for him by giving him the $10 every week or so.
posted by FencingGal at 6:18 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]

My feeling is that giving $2000 might feel really awesome in the moment but would open you up to being constantly asked for larger sums. You’ve already established yourself with him as someone who regularly gives $10 bills, so assuming you can continue to do so, I would just stick with that.
posted by anderjen at 6:18 AM on August 5 [19 favorites]

Spend your money however you want, just know what the facts are.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration research says that around 1/3 of people who are homeless have problems with alcohol and/or drugs, and around 2/3 of these people have lifetime histories of drug or alcohol use disorders. You yourself admit this man is probably spending his money on cigarettes, weed, and liquor. If that's how you want to spend your charity money then that's fine.

But, you say you don't want to give to a "nameless nonprofit that can hire another graphic designer with the money." A regional nameless non-profit like Adopt a Family of the Palm Beaches, which helps families reach stability and self-sufficiency, gives 7.5% of funds to admin costs, 6.9% to fundraising (to which it fundraises $1 for every $.06 spent--think about that graphic designer you were lampooning), and 85.5% to programming.
posted by TheLinenLenin at 6:26 AM on August 5 [34 favorites]

There's nothing wrong with direct handouts. But I question your cynicism re charities.

Re charities flush with cash blowing tons of money on graphic design - of course these exist, but you can also easily find small local charities who are engaged in direct service, very dedicated to their cause and very careful with their money. Try your local food bank for starters.
posted by splitpeasoup at 7:38 AM on August 5 [13 favorites]

If you have it to give and you want to give it, what are the downsides? No one can see the future about the impact of a windfall, but I've yet to encounter an argument against giving any kind of support that doesn't rely on hypotheticals and/or moralizing tales.

Every commercial purchase I make puts money in the pockets of Jeff Bezos and his ilk. Plenty of those dollars are spent on things I don't approve of, and yet I continue to enrich billionaires. I love enabling people who have less of a pool of resources to do what they want with my cash when I have it to spare.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:42 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]

That $10 interaction with your guy is decent and kind and more than most people do. Keep doing it as you please. But if you want to make a tangible difference, give $2000 in money to a local food bank. They'll turn it into meals for literally hundreds of people.
posted by seanmpuckett at 7:47 AM on August 5 [11 favorites]

I agree that to help more people, give that $10 a week to your local foodbank.
posted by Carriage pulled by cassowaries at 7:52 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]

A regional nameless non-profit like Adopt a Family of the Palm Beaches, which helps families reach stability and self-sufficiency, gives 7.5% of funds to admin costs, 6.9% to fundraising (to which it fundraises $1 for every $.06 spent--think about that graphic designer you were lampooning), and 85.5% to programming.

Over 50% of their fundraising is government grants, probably mostly federal but some state too. So another way to look at their finances is that 1/2 of every dollar given individually covers administrative costs. Of course, I'm not blaming them - getting government grants is expensive and requires time and specialized knowledge.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:31 AM on August 5

Response by poster: It's sounding like the majority is recommending to not give him the $2000, but still give him the $10 every few days. I'm happy with that answer. Thanks for all your thoughts!
posted by bbqturtle at 8:49 AM on August 5 [10 favorites]

Give him whatever you are comfortable with. He will tell you to stop if he thinks it is too much. I am not sure what you are buying though. His friendship? Just a gesture to feel good about yourself?

Going back decades when I first moved to NYC after college, there was a guy who was homeless and essentially lived on the steam grate a half a block from my apartment. I used to give him a $5 whenever I saw him. One day, he looked up and said, "Instead of the $5, could you got to the store over there and buy me a bottle of vodka?" I thought about it for a few seconds and then went to get him said bottle. From then on, I would bring him stuff rather than the cash donation. If I get a cheesburger for dinner, I would get him one too. Vodka, whatever. We became on a first name basis. He would tell me the stories of his life before he was on the streets.

Fast forward a few months and it is a Saturday night. I am walking back to my apartment with a first or second date. We pass my friend who is lying over the grate with a blanket covering him. Somehow, he recognizes me, sits up bolt like and says, "Johnny, my man! How are you tonight?" My date looks at me and starts freaking out that I know the guy and I give him cash or kind. Really upset about it. Ranting and raving about the homeless. On and on. So when we got the half block to my walkup apartment, I took out my key, said goodnight and slipped in the front door without her. Never heard from her again.

Long story to say, sure, give the person whatever you can afford literally and mentally. I personally would stop at say $20 an encounter, but if you can make his day with say a Benji $100, go for it. I caution about making some sort of social experiment on your part at their expense.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:52 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]

I think it's admirable to have a chunk of money set aside to help people locally. If you check around, you'll find some shoestring organizations nearby that give gas cards to people going for job interviews, buy school supplies for children whose parents can't afford the supplies, etc. Your own church, if you have one, or friends who are involved with a church are probably good avenues for finding about these operations. Local schools, especially in a lower-income area, can also put that money to excellent use buying winter outerwear for children whose families are struggling. By all means, continue to give your weekly $10 to that guy but I would urge you to donate the larger sum to a group that is more experienced at vetting where that money goes.
posted by DrGail at 9:07 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]

I would think that $2,000 would make a tremendous difference for your local women's or homeless shelter, though I know you said you don't want to give it to charity. I agree that giving it all to one person, while good intentioned, would have far less of an impact than giving it to a shelter that can invest it in helping many people at once. He likely does not have the executive function to manage large sums of money, nor does he have access to resources to help him do so. He would have to carry it on him and doing so would put a very large target on his back, creating a dangerous situation for him and anyone around him.

Good luck
posted by Amy93 at 9:07 AM on August 5 [6 favorites]

Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty

In the conservative world, yes. But in the real world, I think you're very generously improving this guy's life, one day at a time. But if you give him $2K all at once, you'll never be able to walk past his corner again, without attracting A LOT of attention.
posted by Rash at 9:07 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]

If you have two grand to burn, donate to the Pine Street Inn, which does amazing work in supportive housing and job training (not to mention their shelters) in Boston.
posted by cakelite at 9:23 AM on August 5 [8 favorites]

The decision here isn't necessarily $10 (or $2000) to the guy or $10 (or $2000) to charity. If you itemize your deductions on your taxes, you can deduct charitable deductions to a registered charity from your income. In that case, it's $10 (or $2000) to the guy, or $13.15 (or $2631.58) to a registered charity for equivalent cost to you, if you're in the 24% tax bracket (which previous questions from you suggest you are). This can be taken further if you donate appreciated stock or assets to a charity rather than cash, in which case you can avoid capital gains taxes as well as reducing income taxes.

In my particular case, the tax deductibility of donations to charities makes directly giving money to individuals less effective than donations to charities, even if the charity is not 100% efficient. So even if you believe your money will go to a graphics designer for an overfunded charity (which, as stated above, is not guaranteed, and is something you can work to avoid), then you should ask yourself whether it's better to give more money to that charity or less money directly to the guy.

(if you don't itemize your taxes, ignore this post).
posted by saeculorum at 9:58 AM on August 5 [3 favorites]

He sounds like a guy who has a life carved out for himself. He may be doing just fine, the only way to know is to chat with him and ask. I'd ask Boss, I see you a lot, are you okay, is there anything specific you need?

I might budget more for weather, because winter and extreme summer heat makes his task so much more difficult, and less in comfortable weather.
posted by theora55 at 9:59 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]

When the Canadian government offered people $2k a month through the early days of pandemic, outreach workers thought the funds contributed to increased overdose deaths

(Maybe he’s not just into weed and booze).
posted by cotton dress sock at 10:16 AM on August 5 [2 favorites]

About 25 years ago, when I worked in downtown Minneapolis, I would often encounter a panhandler near my office. We'd talk sometimes, and I got to know him a little. His name was Aaron, I still remember. Sometimes I've give him money. Once, I asked him what he really needed, and he said he was hungry and would absolutely love some Chinese chicken with broccoli. That seemed like a reasonable request, so we went to a nearby Chinese place and we had lunch together. I recall buying him food another couple of times; some of my coworkers started doing the same.

I'm not saying that that's the kind of thing you should do. As others have said, you should spend your money however you wish to spend it. But it's another possibility that could work for both of you.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:26 AM on August 5 [4 favorites]

I give people money when they ask - various amounts depending on how often I see them, what they ask for, etc. Why?

1. No one is sitting there begging on the street because their life is so nice and easy; if you're begging on the street, you're having mean interactions with people who insult you, running the risk of cops hassling you and running the risk of having someone else steal your cash. Contra the Sherlock Holmes story, it is not an easy way of life that people preferentially choose.

2. I'm not going to lie on my deathbed wishing I'd hoarded the petty cash. If I have deep regrets in life, in fact, it has been the times that I could have done more for vulnerable strangers or acquaintances and held back.

3. I'm not a freelance cop, judge or social worker - this person does not owe me absolute truth, they're just asking for money. I'm not up there passing judgement on what they deserve, I'm just sharing what I have.

4. Most unhoused/semi-housed people benefit from a little folding money - people don't in fact use it all on drugs and booze. People use it on little stuff - shampoo, hair gel, burn cream, socks, a cold drink, bus fare - say you have to get across town to get some free food, well you can either walk five miles or take a bus, and you need money for the bus.

I will say one more thing: the recent volunteer work I've been doing has recalibrated my feelings about unhoused, semi-housed and socially marginal people. Obviously I wouldn't have been doing the volunteering if I didn't think that people deserved housing, food, services, etc, but talking to people in quantity has changed my feelings.

We live in a shameful society. It is shameful for all of us that we go home to secure houses and comfortable beds and nice dinners while many other people broil out there in the hot sun getting god knows what kinds of injuries and traumas. It isn't proper. It isn't proper to enjoy relative wealth while other people can barely get, eg, treatment for burns from trying to cook over some little campfire without implements.

We don't deserve what we have more than they do. Talking to people has given me a really visceral sense of this. I don't deserve what I have more than they deserve it. I've met all kinds of people who are obviously smart and capable and could, eg, do my job if given healthcare and training. I have my job because I'm white and middle class, not because I'm better than them.

So I feel like I owe them, to be honest. I have something that benefits me a lot that I got basically because of slavery and genocide. For this reason, I feel like if anything I ought to give much more than I do.
posted by Frowner at 10:39 AM on August 5 [21 favorites]

This is not a question of helping this person. This is a question of what you want to do to make yourself feel better. Unless you are willing to actually financially support this person full-time for the rest of your/their life (or provide enough money to set up a trust fund to do the same), no lesser amount of money is really going to /help/ this person for very long. So it's not about them, it's about you. Is the small amounts of cash that you presently give enough? Or are you absolutely dying to /do more/? If it's the latter, I suggest you find a charity where an amount of money greater than cash-on-hand but less than full financial support would be useful.
posted by Stuka at 11:01 AM on August 5

Nonprofits, which are in the business of analyzing and communicating about their donation use in a way individuals aren't, pretty uniformly say that while one-time large donations are appreciated, smaller ongoing donations are preferred. For an org with a budget, of course, this is mainly because you know exactly how much you have to work with every month, but even in a less formal situation I can see why getting reliable small infusions would reduce uncertainty and stress in a way that one windfall does not.
posted by babelfish at 11:09 AM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Nonprofits [..] pretty uniformly say that while one-time large donations are appreciated, smaller ongoing donations are preferred.

This is, so far as I can tell, not entirely accurate. If a given person has an absolute budget for charity and advertises that budget to the charity, then giving 100% of that money up-front is preferred so that the charity has the ability to use the money when it is needed. The reason non-profits ask for ongoing donations is most people will give more money over the long term as recurring donations than they will as one-time donations. It's more a behavioral justification for recurring donations than any financial reasons. Charities are not obligated to spend all money immediately, and they are fully capable of planning their cash flow if donors are upfront about their gifting approach.

This is roughly similar to why many companies will offer rental/lease options for equivalent cost less than just buying something. The likelihood is that the person will end up renting/leasing the item for long enough that the accumulated rental/leasing income exceeds the original price for buying.
posted by saeculorum at 11:35 AM on August 5 [5 favorites]

I understand the question is whether to donate a lump sum vs weekly-ish $10 to a person in need. However, if I had a discretionary $2000, I’d seriously consider a large donation to a very local non profit…county food bank, soup kitchen or shelter. I always keep a supply of $5 gift cards to fast food spots in my vehicle and if I see someone asking for help will hand a couple of cards to them. Most are grateful, some roll their eyes, but I feel I’ve helped in a small way.
posted by kittygrandma at 1:09 PM on August 5

Based on your question, I would also encourage you to look at mutual aid groups near you (in addition to continuing to give the periodic $10 to this one person, if that's what you've decided to do). While I do think there are charities that do very effective work, mutual aid is a great way to get cash directly into the hands of people who need it. As a bonus, they can help you with some of this decision-making. I bet a mutual aid group would be thrilled to have an extra $2k or however much you can spare, and they would be able to figure out how to get it to people who need it most - including people who may not be comfortable or able to ask passersby for money.
posted by earth by april at 1:24 PM on August 5 [1 favorite]

Would $2,000 in a windfall significantly alter your behavior or expect his to change? Think about your involvement to keep him dependent, but how a large sum might leads to an overdose or robbery from your suspected dealer? That would be a heavier burden IMO that more money caused more problems in his world. Perhaps ask on helping provide a dental care as these are not addressed for homeless and would be a boost he just can't get towards paying for in his current state.
posted by brent at 1:50 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]

Don't give $2000 in cash to someone if they are likely to be targeted for robbery. It's not likely this person can just dash over to the bank with this money. If anyone observes you giving it to him it might make his life much worse, not better.
posted by yohko at 2:28 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]

Don’t give him $2000 in cash. If you want to contribute that much to this one person have a conversation with him. What can improve his life for $2000? Is he close enough to a deposit on an apartment that $2000 would get him there? Would he be helped by a plane ticket to friends or family who would take him in? Could a friend or family member come to visit him and you could rent them an AirBnB for a night or two?

I spent some time making too much money and gave a lot of cash and stuff away to people sleeping rough. I’m totally in the camp of “I spend some of my money on pot and White Claw and iOS games and i’ll never begrudge you spending any money I give you on similar things.”

I got to the point where I was giving too much away - my favorite sleeping bag, my EMS winter hat (one of my last vestiges of New England) - and letting homeless guys stay in my apartment. Just be careful is all I’m saying. It came back to bite me in the ass - they stole stuff from me, smoked all my pot, ate massive amounts of cereal…the guy with the colostomy bag left shit on every surface in my bathroom. Later, one guy put his finger on my door buzzer one night at midnight and left it there for ten minutes because he thought I owed him something.

Don’t be too eager to trust. Set your boundaries and keep them.
posted by bendy at 11:25 PM on August 5 [2 favorites]

A $2k grant is well within reason ask to for a plan/ business plan of some kind for how the funds will be used. It doesn't even have to be formal - "what are you going to do with it?" should be enough?
posted by porpoise at 11:59 PM on August 5

I alsoprefer to give to individuals rather than nonprofits. This particular guy does not seem like $2000 would make a huge impact in his life. He has a routine that is working for him. Perhaps search out a person who needs to keep the lights on or repair their car to get to work or is trying to put together money for a rent deposit. In some cities there are mutual aid groups where people can post requests like these. During the COVID lockdown, I was able to give support to some folks who were really hurting.
posted by hworth at 12:48 AM on August 6 [1 favorite]

I never gave out $2k but I've given out a couple hundred or so around Christmas time or if I got a good bonus. It never went well, and caused drama among the local panhandling population. I stuck to $5 or a beer if I remembered after that.
posted by geoff. at 3:51 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]

Am I probably enabling this guy to not improve his life and be stuck in poverty in a way that not giving him cash would motivate him to change his life for the better?

No. Late-stage capitalism, lack of access to affordable timely healthcare, lack of access to affordable housing, lack of universal basic income, food deserts + increasing cost of food, the prison industrial complex, overpolicing and police brutality, and exploitative working conditions that extract a worker's surplus labor value for the benefit of shareholders: that's why he faces hurdles to improving his life.

So please don't feel bad about giving him money. If I had $2k to spare, I'd want to give it to him, too. (And, just as you said, I don't care what he spends it on - it's none of my business, and poor people deserve pleasure, too. Especially given the circumstances in which they live.) If he is someone you think you can befriend and gain the trust of over time, all the better, but don't expect him to trust you or want to be friends (sometimes, it's just not like that).

But to answer your other, actual question- I think I'd give him $10-20 regularly (If this is hard for you to come by in cash form, maybe start making a weekly trip to the bank) and try to strike up friendly but non-invasive convo with him over time. He may begin to trust you more and open up, or he may not. The point is to help him and share our compassion and wealth to others in our community to those who need it. If he feels safe talking to you, then maybe ask about the $2k.

And please do not listen to others here who have suggested "means testing" his qualifications for the $2k. Money should be a gift, and we shouldn't give it to others unless we can accept that they will do with it as they feel they need to do. It's none of my business what someone else does with my gift of money. That's just not how this works.
posted by nightrecordings at 6:10 AM on August 6 [2 favorites]

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