Giving to beggars: My policy, reasons, and recent outcomes

I have a policy when it comes to giving to people who come up to me in the street and ask for money to buy food or some basic necessity: I tell them that I do not carry cash (this is the truth, I do not carry cash), then offer to purchase for them what they say they need the money for. (I won’t purchase them alcohol, drugs, weapons, cigarettes, or things like that. But, who actually tells you they need those things?)

For a month and a half at the beginning of the summer, no one took me up on my offer. I would get uneasy looks, then the person would decline and walk away. Two examples:
1. A man told me a story about how he had AIDS and how he was in a shelter, and he stands in front of the post office (where he and I both were) opening doors for people so that he can get money to go to Publix and buy juice to drink. It just so happened that I was going to Publix (directly across the street), so I made him my normal offer: “I don’t carry cash, but go across the street with me and I will buy you juice at Publix.” Unsurprisingly to me, he did not take me up on my offer. He said, “Oh, I can’t go to Publix. I’ll manage.” It was obvious to me that he didn’t want to get juice… he just wanted money for other things. (By the look of him, it was likely drugs.) So, I walked away, and he continued asking people for money. (I wonder if he changed his story?)
2. I work in downtown Atlanta right now. I walk down the street multiple times a day, and get asked for money at least once a day, usually more. This story is true (and typical of what usually happens): As I was walking between my office and Georgia Pacific, a man approached me and asked me if I could spare a dollar for a sandwich. I told him that I do not carry cash, but I would walk one block down the street with him to the food court and buy him a meal. He looked kind of worried and said, “No, that’s okay,” and walked away. This happens most of the time. I can only assume these people want something other than a sandwich, but don’t want to admit it. It is strange to me that they do not take me up on my offers, though. [EDIT: It was pointed out to me that it does not necessarily follow that people want this money for other things. See the comments.]

After a month and a half, I actually had two people take me up on the offer, just a day apart. One was a woman, the other a man. The woman took me up on buying her a MARTA (Atlanta’s metro system) ticket to somewhere on the other side of town so she could get to a women’s shelter. The man wanted soap, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and deodorant so he could be clean for an interview. I have no idea whether the stories they told me were true or not, but that does not matter to me. I made an offer, and I held up my end of it once they accepted. I can only pray that these individuals use what I bought them to help alleviate their situation.

Some people have asked me why I do this. Here are my reasons:
-Offering to buy someone food or basic necessities instead of immediately rejecting them and walking away acknowledges that person’s human dignity. These people get treated as less them human all day, so the least I can do is acknowledge their dignity and offer to help them out.
-Offering to buy someone food or basic necessities weeds out most people who want money for something else, such as drugs or alcohol. I’ve made the over dozens of times with only two people taking me up on it so far. This way, I can help people who really need it. I know this isn’t a perfect system, but I think it is better than just giving out cash. If people actually need help, I feel an obligation to help them.
-In 2008, when I attended my first FEE seminar, Dr. Anthony Carilli finished out the week by telling the attendees that, besides being a professor, speaker around the US, and an umpire for minor league baseball, he is a volunteer fireman. Why? In his words, “If you believe in the free market, you have to be willing to do your part to support it.” I’ve thought about that statement a lot in the last four years. If I advocate abolishing government welfare programs, I have to be willing to help people out with my own time and money. I am trying to do that.

Some people I know have objected to my practice. One guy said that I am just providing temporary relief to their problem and it doesn’t really help them. So, when I asked him what he recommends, he cited a privately run homeless shelter that has strict rules about work, but actively helps people get jobs and is surprisingly good at doing so. But the guy who told me this does not donate to such shelters or individuals, and isn’t actively trying to start one. That is fine with me. It is his time and his money, which he can do what he wants with it.

One of my favorite professors at Hillsdale always says, “Once you confront a situation or possibility, you have to own it.” The situation I am confronted with on a daily basis is people asking me for help. This is my way of owning it. I know it is not perfect, but I am trying to do what I can.

7 thoughts on “Giving to beggars: My policy, reasons, and recent outcomes

  1. I agree with you on this. There are tons of beggars here in Texas. They stand on literally every busy street corner. Granted who knows who is really telling the truth and needs help, or who I just there to get the money. I’ve heard on several occasions that you can bring in quite a bit of money from people of you claim to be homeless.
    I normally don’t give to these people either, unless I’m feeling super generous.
    On one occasion though, I had an older gentleman limp up to a steak and shake drive through. The person in front of me in line wouldn’t give him the time of day, but I will always usually listen to people. He told me all he wanted was one of their $4 meals. He’d been traveling for two days and needed something to eat so he could take his medications (then he held up a plastic bag full of pill bottles). Because he was only asking for food (he specifically said he didn’t want any money) I felt pretty compelled to buy him something. $4 is an amount I’m sure I waste on other things I don’t need anyway. I bought him his food and he seemed grateful and he limped back to a park bench. So – I agree with your observations. Anyone who is really and truly in need will accept any kind of assistance you are willing to give them. It’s just unfortunate that people try to take advantage of the system. It’s hard to weed out who is telling the truth and who is lying.

  2. Seattle is the worst place for beggars I’ve ever visited. It’s so bad that I profile anyone on the street that asks me for directions before I answer them. If someone asks you were a certain club is and they aren’t dressed well, they’re pretty much looking to tell their sob story and get money. It happens all the time. I feel guilty ignoring them, but I don’t think most of them need monetary help most urgently.

  3. Chuck, good post, I enjoyed it. I like this practice and I admire your take on the fact that taking responsibility for the less fortunate necessarily comes with the privilege of the free market. That’s a point I would like to hear more from the “Don’t Tread on Me” bumper sticker toting libertarians. Quite frankly, I don’t hear that from them. It’s as if “the hand of the free market” will offer the less fortunate a job and they will take care of themselves.

    A thought on preserving the beggar’s dignity. I don’t think that it necessarily follows that because they refuse you buying them food instead of being given money that they want money for “other things”, such as drugs. It is quite a humbling experience for a beggar, especially someone fresh on the streets, to stand next to someone buying their food for them in a restaurant with others looking at them. I’m sure it is easier for some beggars to merely refuse your offer and wait for cash.

    1. Parker,
      Thank you for the compliment.
      You are right that it does not necessarily follow that refusing my offer means they want money for other things. I edited my post with a clarification on that. Thanks.

  4. Chuck, I commend you’re policy; though I will warn you that you’re likely to have some crazy stories before long if you stick to it. Growing up in Berkeley, CA-one of the homeless capitals of the nation-I regularly faced the same situation you do. My father, however, set the expectations for us about what to do if asked for money. LIke you, he would say he had no cash (usually true) and then offer to buy them what they claimed they needed money for (usually food).

    Following this family expectation, I once offered to buy lunch large for a large man pushing a grocery cart and loudly claiming that he was a Iraq war veteran without food. He accepted and during lunch proceeded to show me a gapping wound in his side where he’d been shot during a firefight “in Iraq.” Even his grand story didn’t convince this highschooler that he’d done anything more than get shot in a gang fight in Oakland. In any case, it was certainly one of the more intriguing lunch meals I’ve had.

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