At the beginning of the summer, I set out to answer a question that has been staring me down ever since I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago: how to help people who appear homeless – especially those who ask for money. If I have a desire to share the goodness of God, is it as simple as “[giving] to the one who asks” (Matthew 5:42)?
I’m not going to give you a black-and-white answer in this article as to whether you should or should not give money to people on the street, but I will say that through my research, interviews, and personal experience, I’ve come to believe that the end goal is not a financial transaction. What I’ve seen that makes the biggest impact is cultivating a personal relationship.
But let’s give ourselves a little context regarding the situation in Philadelphia. An article in Citypaper put the homeless population in Philadelphia at 12,000 (Project HOME put it at more like 650, so I’m not sure what to make of that, but whatever). We’ve also got one of the highest poverty rates in the country (28.4%); the housing authority currently has over 100,000 people on the waiting list for public housing (they are now processing applicants from 2003); and 94% of those on the street have behavioral health challenges, such as mental health, substance abuse, or (predominantly) both.
Not easy things to deal with, but we do have resources. Philadelphia’s got 5,500 beds for homeless people by means of shelters and transitional units, and many other places to get food. For example, Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission serves three meals a day, seven days a week, to anyone who comes through their doors. Project HOME has a homeless hotline which can be called anytime, and they will come in a van, pick up a person in need, and find him/her a shelter. Project HOME has also put together an awesome list of shelters, kitchens and other resources for homeless people, which I highly recommend you print out and carry with you when you’re out and about. Now, keep in mind that not all people have positive experiences at shelters – things can get stolen and fights can break out – but it can be one starting place.
Another starting place is LIFT Philadelphia. LIFT is a nonprofit that was started in 1998 by two college sophomores who wanted to create a centralized hub for low-income people to receive help in finding jobs and housing, obtaining public benefits, and making connections with other service agencies. I recently got to sit down with Katie Turek, a Program Fellow from LIFT, to hear her thoughts on the idea of giving money to people on the street.
Her response? “If you feel comfortable to take the step to offer information or resources, then…do so…It’s a case-by-case, whatever you think in a situation is right. But I feel like information could be more of a sustainable thing to give someone than money.”
And info is essentially what LIFT gives. Case in point – Turek shared the story of a homeless man whom they were able to help get enrolled in a community college and then into his own apartment, who is now on his way to becoming a drug and alcohol counsellor. And through the whole process, they never gave him a cent.
“Our members are in the driver’s seat for how change happens”, she said. “They’re the ones who define what their goals are when they come in.”
It’s obvious that LIFT is a great place to refer people in need to (you just need to call them and set up an appointment, which, unless it’s an emergency, will happen in about a week).
But we can also glean another important lesson from this: you shouldn’t try to control what people do with what you give them. In other words, if you’re going to give money, consider that it may not be going towards a home, food, etc. Sometimes people want money for drugs and alcohol. No judgment there – they’ve probably had it rough, and anyway, if you’re gonna get mad at people for doing that, take a look at the majority of college students these days. But it’s true. And maybe panhandlers aren’t interested in getting off the streets. If you’ve watched the movie The Soloist, you’ll know what I mean. So, like Danny Silk says, “don’t tell me about me” – i.e., don’t try to force onto somebody what you think they need.
Another person I got to talk to about the issue of homelessness is David Collins, a general contractor who, on the matter of homelessness, is a self-described “amateur with a lifetime of experience in street ministry”. When asked about the topic of panhandling, Collins said, “I don’t like it”. Instead, he’s taken it a step further – over the past 25 years, he’s brought in 10-12 men off the street, heroin addicts included, to come live with him until they’ve gotten their lives back on their feet. He’s also employed them in his contracting business while they live with him.
Collins says that, to make a difference, “You gotta walk in discernment, and you’ve gotta have courage and guts. And you’ve got to have the time…One of the perils of our time that actually keeps us from manifesting love in other people’s lives is the rigidity of the modern corporate work environment”. This is like the old saying “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”. Is it possible that giving money and then leaving can be a cop-out to the commitment it would take to offer “fishing lessons”?
While not all of us may be equipped to do what Collins has done, I hope it’s become clear that there are alternatives to either ignoring panhandlers or emptying your wallet for them. I’d say that the key ingredient I’ve seen in almost every story of someone being successfully transitioned away from the streets has not been in a really successful day of panhandling (with one exception being in Acts 3:1-10…that works too). It’s been in a personal, consistent, committed relationship. When asked about why inner cities struggle so much, pastor Bill Johnson once said, “It has a lot to do with the absence of effective fatherhood. A person knows their destiny by fatherhood. There is a process involved and it’s not all broken off in one afternoon.”
So while I’m not going to tell you exactly what you should do when you encounter someone who wants money, you should be mindful of the many resources in the city, and consider other alternatives such as offering to take them out to eat, calling the Homeless Hotline, or donating time and money to a homeless shelter. Whatever you decide to do, I will simply leave you with the same thing David Collins left me with at the conclusion of our interview – “Just remember, it’s personal”.
Psalm 113:8 – He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of their people.