It doesn’t matter where you live or work or travel; chances are you’ve seen at least one homeless person before. They’re usually pretty easy to spot—covered in raggedy clothes, dirty and smelly, sometimes hauling around a shopping cart or duffel bag with all of their worldly possessions. Some places have more of them than others. Take Washington D.C., for example. While it’s the capital city of the supposed “richest nation in the world,” it also had a homeless population of nearly 10,000 in 2006. And if you’ve ever been to D.C. before, especially in the area of any of the major monuments or government buildings, then you know that the homeless can be very… persistent in their attempts to coerce a handout from you. I’m sure they’re relatively successful too; otherwise D.C.’s homeless problem would quickly take care of itself.
Maybe you yourself have given your spare change to a homeless person before, either at a stoplight or on a street corner or in a dark alley that you thought was a nice shortcut. I’ve done it one or twice myself, but not recently since somebody explained to me that giving money to panhandlers really doesn’t help anything, except perhaps to alleviate your own sense of guilt temporarily. If you think your 50 cents is going to turn that homeless person’s life around, think again:
- Many will use your handout not for food… but for things like alcohol and drugs. If someone asks for “50 cents for a cup of coffee,” ask them where they found coffee for 50 cents and then let us all know!
- For some, homelessness is a well-paying career. Some homeless people who can secure some good curb real estate can pull in more money panhandling than getting a minimum-wage job, so there’s simply no motivation for them to try to shoot for a better life. And in some cases, that homeless person in rags actually has a home—maybe even a nicer one than you—but he or she stands on the street collecting change everyday because it pays well. Unfortunately it’s hard to tell the “real” homeless from the con artists.
- Homeless people have even worse budgeting habits than average Americans. Even if you toss some change to a genuine homeless person who will use it for food or other necessities, you can bet that all 50 cents you just gave out will be spent by the end of the day, continuing the cycle of poverty endlessly.
- Your 50 cents is better off in other hands. Even if a non-profit organization spends half of your 50 cents on its own costs, that other 25 cents is much better off helping to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty.
- You’ll be a full 50 cents poorer. Unless you can find a homeless person who is a qualified non-profit organization and is willing to give you a receipt, you won’t reap any of the tax benefits you’d normally receive for your charitable contributions. The government thanks you for your free money.
Even knowing these facts, it can still be hard saying no to homeless people who approach you on the street, and it’s all thanks to those pesky human emotions of ours. Guilt, embarrassment, sympathy—these feelings can quickly override the common sense locks we keep on our wallets that normally keep us from using money foolishly. But if you’re in the habit of wandering through areas with heavy homeless populations, you could end up giving away a lot of your cash to panhandlers. To help fight the urge to toss pennies at every beggar on the street, here are some steps you should take the next time you find yourself face-to-dirty-face with one of the much less fortunate.
- Don’t make eye contact. It may sound cold and heartless, but it’s a lot easier to ignore someone when you’re not looking at them.
- Don’t dress rich. If you’re planning a stroll through downtown Hoboville, then you may want to dress like a hobo so you don’t draw the attention of every Johnny Gimme-a-dime. If you look like a million bucks, then homeless people will assume you have a million bucks. And so might the muggers…
- Find alternate routes. If your commute to work takes you by that adorable stinky homeless guy to whom you can’t help but toss a few dollars everyday, you need to find a new route to work. Again, it might sound mean, but “out of sight, out of mind” really does apply here.
- Don’t carry cash. Ever. This is something I recommend in general for everyone, not just as a way to fend off panhandlers. If you don’t even carry a dollar with you, you won’t be able to give it to the next random beggar who accosts you on the street. If you need regular access to cash, carry an ATM card if you must (but not a debit card). Otherwise, keep only credit cards in your wallet and you won’t have to worry about whittling away your savings on handouts.
- Actually freaking do something about homelessness. What, did you think you were gonna get out of this one for free? Pffft. The only real way to fight that guilty feeling you get every time you see a homeless person is to help them—not that one person, but all homeless people in general. As I mentioned earlier, your 50 cents (or five dollars, or $1,000) will be put to much better use in the hands of organizations like the United Way or Salvation Army. Even better: volunteer your time for free at your local soup kitchen or homeless shelter (and don’t forget to take your tax deductions for expenses you incur while working for charities). Or contact your local government and politicians and tell them to address the problem of homelessness in your area. Whatever you decide, you’ll find it’s much easier to “ignore” the homeless when you’re actually helping them.
- Call 311. Several cities, most recently New York, have launched programs that allow citizens to phone their local non-emergency number to report homeless persons—not so they can be arrested or bussed out of town, but so that they can be helped. New York City’s program, for example, sends someone from its Department of Homeless Services in response to every report it receives and usually within one hour of the call. Sure, the homeless person can refuse assistance, but sometimes all it takes is a helping hand out (and not a handout) to get those people back on their feet.
One last note on that 311 service: If your city doesn’t advertise that it offers assistance to homeless through its 311 service, call anyway. You may still be able to find someone who will do something to help, even if it is just sending a patrol car to offer a ride to the nearest shelter. And if your 311 service refuses to help, call your mayor, representative, senator, or governor and request for that to change.