Aly's Angle: Should we give money to the homeless on the streets?

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Aly VislockyAly's Angle:

Should we give money to the homeless on the streets? My $1 conflict

This week our Be BETTER goal asks us to find opportunities to give away five one-dollar ($1) bills. My first instinct was to recommend giving a dollar to someone homeless on the streets. Here is my $1 conflict:

As a kid, I was given everything I ever wanted. I grew up in a bubble of wealth that only a small percentage of the population experiences. I was only a small child, but I still remember vividly the times that my dad stopped to give money to homeless men on the street. He told me once that every time he sees a homeless man with a sign mentioning that he is a war veteran, he stops to give him a dollar because my grandfather also served in wartime. In that moment, it hit home that these homeless men on the streets could be my grandpa; they are someone’s grandparents. In that moment, my dad was such a great example of charity. The visual of my father in his BMW, rolling down his window and gently handing over a $5 bill, will forever be an example of my father’s generous nature. His example is lasting and adds to the conflict I feel about giving money to the homeless on the streets.

When I was a teenager, I heard that you shouldn’t give money to the homeless because “they just use it to spend money on booze and drugs.” I remember thinking how judgmental that felt in comparison to my father’s example of love. Now that I have obtained my graduate degree in social work, however, I feel conflicted. There is evidence proving that giving that dollar is not the most effective way to help the homeless. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, most panhandlers have places to live, and most homeless people do not panhandle. Research says it is actually harmful and takes away from low funded non-profits trying to make a difference. In this list from Justgive.org discussing 35 ways to help the homeless, handing them money is not even mentioned.

So here’s my question: Is the feeling you get from giving a dollar to someone and the example you set by connecting with someone in need worth the potential negative effect that dollar might have in that person’s life? That is for you to decide. . . But this is what I decided.

I never give money away when I am traveling internationally for carefully considered reasons. In Kenya, when I’m traveling with Kenya Keys, we want our interaction with the people to be about love, education and support, not money. We don’t want to be seen as dollar signs; we want the relationship to go a lot deeper. We want to put the money into programs that are going to benefit the people of Kenya a lot more than $1 benefits an individual. I feel very strongly about that practice when I travel internationally; therefore, I am going to practice the same thing over here.

The only difference is that in the United States, I rarely find myself donating money to the homeless. Therefore instead of giving money away on the streets, I will put it in a jar labeled “help the poor and needy.” At the end of the year, I will donate the money that I have saved to a local charity. A charity that will be able to make a bigger difference.

It is important to me to be an example to my future children, just like my dad was to me. Therefore additional ways to show kindness to homeless people can be found in a list created by Justgive.org. I found this list inspiring.  One of my favorites is: “Educate yourself about the homeless. … One of the first steps in helping people is to see them as individuals and to find out what they need. Notice them; talk to them. Most are starved for attention.”

Thank you, Dad, for your lasting example of charity, which doesn’t stop at the dollars you gave to the homeless. You also show your commitment through your annual donation to the Portland-based battered women’s shelter that I volunteered for one summer in high school.

List from Justgive.org. The website gives examples in more detail:

  1. Understand who the homeless are.
  2.  Educate yourself about the homeless.
  3. Respect the homeless as individuals.
  4. Respond with kindness.
  5. Develop lists of shelters.
  6. Buy Street Sheet.
  7. Bring food.
  8. Give money.
  9. Give recyclables.
  10. Donate clothing.
  11. Donate a bag of groceries.
  12. Donate toys.
  13. Volunteer at a shelter.
  14. Volunteer at a soup kitchen.
  15. Volunteer your professional services.
  16. Volunteer your hobbies.
  17. Volunteer for follow-up programs.
  18. Tutor homeless children.
  19. Take homeless children on trips.
  20. Volunteer at a battered women's shelter.
  21. Teach about the homeless.
  22. Publish shelter information.
  23. Educate your children about the homeless.
  24. Sign up your company/school.
  25. Recruit local business.
  26. Create lists of needed donations.
  27. Play with children in a shelter.
  28. Employ the homeless.
  29. Help the homeless apply for aid.
  30. Stand up for the civil rights of the homeless.
  31. Join Habitat for Humanity.
  32. Form a transitional housing program.
  33. Write to corporations.
  34.  Contact your government representatives.
  35. Push for state homelessness prevention programs.