news4.wideaIf you live or work in a city you likely pass them on the streets and sidewalks every day. Holding a sign reading “Homeless, please help” or an old coffee cup to collect spare change, the itinerant panhandlers and chronic homeless look you in the eye and ask for your money.

What do you do in such situations? What should you do?

Jim Antle recounts some of the experiences he’s had with panhandlers and explains why he gives them money:

There are a million excuses to pass the homeless by, many of them valid. I use them all almost every day. For many of these people, struggling with substance abuse and mental illness, I could empty out my bank account and at best help them only temporarily.

In other cases, the assistance could be counterproductive or even foolish. Many will use any cash they get to buy drugs or booze. Others may lie about their circumstances.

Yet even when I convince myself to keep walking, I can’t block out these verses from Matthew: “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'”

“And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'”

Every panhandler I help could be a scam artist. But each one I pass by could be Jesus.

Antle’s efforts to live out a Biblical ethic of neighbor love is convicting and makes me wonder, “Am I doing all I can do for my homeless neighbors?” I certainly can’t fault Antle’s approach, but I find I’m more inclined to agree with Kevin Corinth, an AEI scholar and homelessness researcher. In response to Antle’s column, Corinth says,

This is one of the best accounts I’ve seen of a Christian’s internal struggle regarding street homelessness. It’s blatantly honest and reflects genuine love for humanity. But he goes wrong in his last sentence when he says “Every panhandler I help could be a scam artist. But each one I pass could be Jesus.” The truth is that some are scam artists, and many will do harm to themselves with the money. And yet EVERY single one of them is Jesus. We are called to love scam artists and substance abusers just as much as we are called to love those poor people society deems more “pure.”

And so the question is — if Jesus was suffering from drug addiction, had a mental illness, or was a scam artist — how could we best show our unconditional love for him? My answer? We would not give him cash in order to placate our personal fears about rejecting Jesus. We would certainly not ignore him to avoid discomfort. Rather, we would recognize the deep struggles our brother is facing. We would certainly look him in the eye and acknowledge his humanity. We would out of deep empathy for his struggle, politely decline his request for financial assistance. Depending on our schedule, we may offer to share in a meal or a cup of coffee. We would pray for him, and we might give money to organizations which can more effectively address his needs than us.

The world is an uncomfortable place with real suffering – I think we achieve our full humanity when we live inside that world as much as we can bear.

What do you think? What’s the best approach for dealing with our neighbors on the streets who seek our aid?

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  • thestungwife

    I think you have to take this on a case-by-case basis. I live in a city with a lot of poverty. Many times I simply give panhandlers a smile and hello, and then pass by. Sometimes I will ask if there’s anything I can get them, and then do that. Usually people will ask for a soda, coffee, chips, or candy. There was a homeless woman who used to spend cold winter days in the lounge of a building where I taught, and she loved M&Ms so I used to bring her a bag when I remembered. And, on occasion I will give money, if I have cash and feel comfortable doing so. I’m not sure there’s one right answer to how to deal with panhandlers, and I think in most cases a range of responses can be justified.

    • Guadalupe

      wow, I love your idea of what you can bring them. You’d think it’d be obvious, but I’ve never thought of that.

  • joshbishop

    Personally, I default to the “give cash and/or food if I’ve got it” approach. As much as I respect and understand the “only give money to organizations working for systemic change” argument, I’m worried that as a practical matter it too often translates into an excuse for inaction, rather than an opportunity for right action. I know I’m not going to write a check to the Holland Rescue Mission, so I give whatever cash I have on hand instead. Further, I think the generous impulse should be reinforced wherever its found, and I worry what would happen if we continually, repeatedly stifle that response whenever we personally encounter poverty.

  • katmoncue

    Some observations: In Matt. 25, I don’t see so much advocacy for a well-to-do person’s placating his/her conscience by giving cash to anyone with an outstretched palm as I see advocacy for personal involvement with the “neighbors” in ways pertinent to various high distress situations. Almost all of these situations have the potential of leading to death if not addressed. I also see advocacy for group involvement as the sheep are a group and the goats are a group.

    In Luke 16 (Lazarus and the rich man) Jesus is clear about the results of callous, repeated refusal to interact with and give minimal help (table leftovers?) to a person in our immediate vicinity who is in visible distress and decline.

    • Jim

      My wife and I have taken to carry McDonalds gift cards to give out; to be sure it goes for food.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    One time, as I was leaving a Walgreens, I noticed a raggedly dressed man and nodded to him. I just met his eyes and nodded to him. And he called out across the parking lot, thanking me. For a nod. For acknowledging his existence as a person.

    His name was Alex. We talked for a bit, and at the end, I asked if I could give him some money. And ever since then, I haven’t been able to pass up an opportunity to give and learn their names. I think a lot of the time, we use the blanket term “the homeless” to distract ourselves from the fact that each and every one of them is a unique person. And if we use that generalization to keep us from individual charity, I think that’s a problem.

  • Jim

    I have had many, many experiences with panhandlers and homeless people and like all people, they are unique. Many share similar traits, life experiences, strategies for panhandling, etc., I suppose each situation should be treated differently. My mother-in-law, bless her soul, is one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. As a general rule, she offers to give or to buy food to anyone who asks for money.

    I am not consistent and sometimes I have out-and-out lied to people by simply telling them I have no money to give them (no cash might be more precise, but still disingenuous.) When i offer people food instead, many people accept, many decline, and some are downright rude. Many are more thankful than I have ever been for anything in my life.

    Of course, this doesn’t apply in every situation as some people, whether by contrived story or genuine need, are asking for money for something other than food (gas money, to get their kids back, etc. etc.) I guess there is no easy answer.

  • DMP

    “We would certainly not ignore him to avoid discomfort. Rather, we would recognize the deep struggles our brother is facing. We would certainly look him in the eye and acknowledge his humanity. We would out of deep empathy for his struggle, politely decline his request for financial assistance. Depending on our schedule, we may offer to share in a meal or a cup of coffee. We would pray for him, and we might give money to organizations which can more effectively address his needs than us.” You have just turned this into a moment of personal subjective reflection and empathy with possible contextual action. All this does is allow someone the time to reflect then deliberate and then suffer momentary angst which are all the formula for option overload freeze and then just plain old rationalization, and then finally…. nothing. No this response is sad and paper thin. Nice try but no cigar.

  • http://johnbotkin.net John

    I certainly feel that struggle of knowing what to do. Impulsively, I want to reach for my wallet. But after reading several works on the reality of life for many in poverty, I now believe that giving cash is usually not the best thing for them. I often offer to buy them a meal or even a bag of groceries. So, I think Corinth is headed in the right direction.

  • Nancy

    My seven year old nephew had the best idea. When I gave a corner Freeway beggar a dollar and drove away he said, “You should have given him a bottle of water.” And he was right as it was a blistering hot July summer day.

  • http://timfall.wordpress.com/ Tim

    This is really thought-provoking, Joe. I don’t get as wigged out about this as I used to. When it comes to helping, I think we should help where we can without getting bogged down in worry over whether it’s the absolute right way to help. People respond to kindness, and that is God’s way to bring people to him.

  • Mo86

    It is very difficult. I do what I ca. But I’ve been out of full time work for over 7 years now. I barely have enough to get by, myself! I’m going to be sitting on that corner soon if God does not answer my cries and open up doors for employment.

    But this was a bit troubling:

    “And so the question is — if Jesus was suffering from drug addiction, had a mental illness, or was a scam artist — how could we best show our unconditional love for him? ”

    A genuine mental illness is different from being a drug addict or scam artist. The latter two are deliberate sinful life choices. Jesus would never do them. Nor are we obligated to help people continue in behaviors that will harm them or harm others.