Should we give to street panhandlers?

Found three interesting articles on Christianity Today’s website about giving to panhandlers on the street. They take three people with differing positions and ask them to write an answer to the question. I have always wondered about this and trying to think through my own answer to this and haven’t come up with one! I likely won’t do their arguments justice, but here they are:

Ron Sider (of Evangelicals for Social Actions, and the only one of the three who I had heard of) wrote his piece on ‘never‘ giving to panhandlers. To sum up, he says that we give to those organisations that are better suited to help the needs for homeless. That is the best way to combat ‘poverty’s structural causes’. He encourage people to actually engage with panhandlers and offer to take them to lunch if they needed food.

Andy Bales (the chief executive of Union Rescue Mission) took the ‘last resort’ stance. His arguments were similar to Sider’s, but also told of the stories of panhandlers who made £300 a day. His main question was, ‘Was this the best use of resources?’ His caveat was a story in Shanghai where they do not have the organisations in place to help. He gave all he had.

Gary Hoag (the Generosity Monk) gave the ‘freely’ position. He gave us three reasons why we don’t give to panhandlers. 1) We judge them. 2) We fear our own lack of resources. 3) We’re selfish (love stuff more than people). These are the reasons behind why we don’t give, and we need to overcome them.

All three sound plausible! Though by far and away the most convicting was Gary Hoag’s. I will be honest and say it’s his reason #3 has crept into my thinking when I see panhandlers. This may be an attempt to relieve my guilt, but still I do give – whether or not it is ‘enough’ can be debated. I do think a concern for where money goes needs to be a consideration.

Other thoughts: in our district there is a homeless ministry that houses residents. If they are caught panhandling, they are immediately removed. I also wonder how the backgrounds of the authors influence what they have written. Sider and Bales are part of organisations that work against poverty. Hoag is a freelance author who speaks on generosity (I can’t see any regular day-t0-day involvement with the homeless on his website, but I may be wrong). I don’t mean to judge them, but wonder how this has formed them. Also, Hoag didn’t talk about structural causes of poverty, but focused on individual giving (of course, if he had more time he may have done). Sider is one of few evangelicals who do talk about structural causes.

Have any of you come to any conclusions?

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2 thoughts on “Should we give to street panhandlers?

  1. It’s tricky – I tend to the first two positions – mainly because giving money can also be a way to ease our conscience – like we are actually doing something because we hand someone a dollar. But Sider is absolutely right to say that it is not enough to give to poverty alleviating organizations, either. We must engage with panhandlers – offer food and conversation – to say, essentially, “I see you… I recognize you.” This is why I especially dislike the practice of panhandling at busy intersections (esp. highway off ramps) – it is not only dangerous for panhandlers and motorist alike, but it makes actual interaction nearly impossible. It is not the same as encountering a panhandler in a walkable part of the city. I am sure they make more money this way though – well-to-do people can feel good about themselves for less than they pay for their daily coffee, without feeling “threatened,” the way they do when meeting on the common ground of a city sidewalk.
    We are going to be reading a book called “The Fear of Beggars” in Dr. Amy Laura Hall’s Ethics class this semester – one of the few in the reading list that was unfamiliar to me – I am looking forward to it!

  2. Sarah, thank you for emphasising a point that I should have brought up more and said was just as convicting. I wonder if I have become immune to that one so I skip over it and don’t think about it! I think this could be a great ministry for the church, in particular so one doesn’t do it alone.

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