Why I Give to Panhandlers (and Think You Should Too).

homeless man begging in subway station with a sign

It’s a question we have all wrestled with. Should we give money to panhandlers? To homeless men and women begging on the sidewalk or holding a sign at a traffic light? If we do, are we enabling them? Are we doing more harm than good?

I’ve worked with homeless people through drop-in centers and street ministry and been homeless myself as a young woman. I’ve panhandled (quite successfully, actually) with a sign that said “kick a bum for a buck”. I’ve eaten in soup kitchens, and heard the heart-breaking stories of countless men, women, and youth living on the streets. And until a few years ago I didn’t have an answer for whether or not to give to panhandlers.

I did give, often out of a sense of guilt or compassion. But I was never sure that it was the right thing to do.

But then God changed my heart.

One ordinary hectic Sunday morning on the way to Starbucks to get our caffeine fix before church, rushing with our van load of children to arrive on time, yelling from the front seat for someone to put their shoes back on and to stop fighting over the hair brush we brought along because we never manage to get everybody’s hair brushed before the frantic, barely shod rush out the front door, we saw a man with a sign asking for money and thought of stopping . My husband and I both thought of it. But we didn’t. That day in church I didn’t hear a word of what the pastor said because God was breaking my heart.

If I arrive at church on Sunday morning, wearing my most convincing soccer-mom-who-has-it-all-together outfit, with my slew of children all groomed nicely and a three-dollar coffee in my hand, but failed to help the person in need along the way? I have completely missed the point.

I bawled all the way home that day and have felt called to give to panhandlers ever since. Here is why:

1. Jesus says to give to those who ask of us. (Matthew 5:42)

He doesn’t say to give to those who deserve it, those who are trying to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, those who will spend it wisely, but just to give. Do we have to give just money? Of course not. We could give a meal, a gift card, a listening ear, hope, prayer, words of encouragement, warm socks, hand knitted gloves or a hot cup of coffee. But walking past without giving anything to somebody in need who is asking for help? Frankly? Scripturally it is just not an option.

2. It offers them some dignity. 

You and I get to decide what we have for lunch, whether to splurge on a latte or just get an ordinary coffee and save a few bucks. It is true that those in need can sometimes get a meal at drop-in centers and urban missions, but people deserve to be able to make independent decisions. I would love to afford someone a little bit of dignity today.

3. Meeting their perceived needs frees up time to meet their actual needs. 

I’ve heard this argument countless times: “They are just going to spend the money on drugs”. Maybe it is true. Some of them will. I did when I was homeless. But if this person is going to sit in the cold and wind and rain until they have enough money to not start detoxing in the street, then I am happy to help them meet that goal quicker so that they can go get themselves warm and fed and cared for. Once we give money to panhandlers, the money is theirs. What they do with it is their business. I am just called to give, not to judge.

4. Panhandling is hard work. 

There’s nothing glamorous about sitting on the pavement and asking people for money. There’s nothing fun about being spat on, kicked, ignored and sworn at by passersby. People who aren’t in need don’t subject themselves to this. If somebody is willing to subject themselves to the elements and the harsh judgments of fellow human beings, then I can certainly put a few bucks in their cup.

5. I don’t want to miss the opportunity to feed Christ himself. 

This is the big one, right? Jesus tells us that when we serve those in need, we do it for him. (Matthew 25:31-40) I would like to think I would never walk past Jesus, scared to make eye contact in case he asks something of me. But so many of us do it every single day. I would rather give to a thousand con artists than walk past one person truly in need and fail to help them. I don’t want to be guilty of ignoring Jesus anymore.

6. It’s humbling.

Truth is, we only have our needs met because God has made it possible. The ability to work and earn income is a blessing from the hand of God. The fact that our own struggles and hurts and poor choices haven’t left us begging on the sidewalk is the grace of God in our lives and nothing else. Giving up a small portion of our income is a reminder that we would have nothing if it were not for the grace of God in our lives. Which, honestly, is a reminder I need often.

We are all in need. And most of us aren’t willing to write our needs on a piece of cardboard and ask for help. I think people who do are stronger and braver than we realize.

7. I want my children to see me giving. 

I give to panhandlers because I want my kids to see me excited to give and help. I want to show them that it is okay to look homeless people in the eye. I want them to know that we only have our needs met because God has made it so. When in doubt I want them to err on the side of giving.

8. Drop-in centers and homeless missions can be difficult places to be (and aren’t always open).

I sometimes hear that we shouldn’t give to homeless people because there are community resources available to help them. That we should give the money to those resources instead. And I love that those community resources exist. I don’t want to be critical of the centers themselves because they are doing a good work the best they can. But so many individuals in need have been hurt, abused, or judged at these centers by other guests or the volunteers themselves. We can’t assume that every person we see on the street could just go get a sandwich and a bowl of soup if they need it. Some of them can’t, for very legitimate reasons.

Also, these often volunteer run programs aren’t open 24/7. Being able to get a meal during very specific hours, 2 or even 5 days a week is better than nothing, but it isn’t enough.

9. I would want people to give to me if I was in that position.

 In fact, I did. If you were in such need that you were begging on a street corner, how would you like people to respond to you?

10. I never again want to arrive on time for church on Sunday morning with a Starbucks coffee in hand and know that I drove past someone in need to make it happen. 

Never. The Lord broke my heart that day and I am so glad that He did.

There are times that we can’t give. Times when we don’t have any cash on us, or we’ve already given to that person today, or are in too much of a hurry to stop. But if we cannot give cash in that moment, for whatever reason, I believe that we are compelled by the presence of God in our fellow humans to make eye contact, smile, and greet them with the same acknowledgement we would want if we were the ones requesting help.

Friends, be free to give to the homeless, the beggars and panhandlers in your town. Your hands brushing as you pass a five-dollar bill to that man in need might be the only touch he receives all day. You might be the first person all morning to make eye contact with him, to smile at him. Your prayer for that homeless youth might be the first prayer ever silently spoken for her. Be free to give. Your spirit will be richer for it.
But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. -1 John 3:17-18

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