Giving to Panhandlers

By Peter Gathje

1. Give or don’t give. It is really your choice. But always look the person in the eye who is asking, greet them and then maybe add, “Sorry I can’t help today,” or “Here you go.” Always treat the person with respect.

2. If you do give to a panhandler, remember it is a gift, and the person is free to do with it whatever he or she wants.

3. If you don’t give, that is ok. Panhandlers expect most people not to give. One said to me, “It’s like cold calling in sales. I expect to get turned down most of the time and it doesn’t bother me. Just treat me with respect.” (See Rule #1.)

4. If you feel unsafe or the person is being aggressive or threatening, leave the area and don’t give. As one said to me, “There are xxxxxxxx in every line of work. Don’t reward them.”

5. Sometimes give more than you are being asked for. If someone asks for a dollar, give them five — just for fun!

6. Set a limit or a boundary to your giving. Mine is $5 per day. Once I’ve given out my $5, I respond to anyone who asks, “I’ve given out already what I give each day.” I consider this my “street tax.”

7. There are people out there who aren’t homeless who panhandle. They are simply poor. So, again, give or don’t give, but treat everyone with respect. (See Rule #1.)

8. Feeling awkward or uncomfortable when you see a panhandler is ok. It means you have a conscience and some compassion.

9. If you have time and are so inclined, volunteer with an organization that works with people on the streets offering food, shelter, medical care, etc. You’ll get to know some really interesting people, and they’ll get to know you. And you might just see them on the streets from time to time, and you can wave and yell, “Hi!”

10. If you really want to help people who are housing deprived, then advocate for housing for all homeless people. Support organizations in your area that practice a “housing first” approach to homelessness. Also, resist all efforts, such as No Panhandling laws, to dehumanize, disrespect and criminalize people who are on the streets. (See Rule #1.)

Peter Gathje is Academic Dean and professor of Christian Ethics at Memphis Theological Seminary, and a founder of Manna House, a place of hospitality in Memphis.