Last weekend, my husband and I went to a last minute concert in downtown Indianapolis. Even better, we decided to hit one of the best restaurants around – The Oceanaire – for some pre-show appetizers. With entrees costing anywhere from $30 to $80, it’s a place I’ve only visited once – when my old employer paid for it. Fortunately, they had a bar menu with $6 appetizers from 4:00 – 7:00. And boy was it good.
Unfortunately, a conversation I got sucked into almost made me want to vomit. The guy sitting next to us was making small talk with my husband when he casually brought up how much he despises homeless people.
“This city is so beautiful and I love living downtown,” he said. “But all of the homeless people are ruining the experience for me.”
“Other cities get them to go somewhere else,” he went on. “Why can’t Indianapolis find a way to get rid of them?”
I can only imagine what the look on my face was like. Here this guy was, eating a $40 plate of oysters, complaining that homeless people were a nuisance. Sitting in such an opulent setting and listening to his words made me feel like a dirty prick.
My polite husband nodded and smiled uncomfortably. Me? I just sat there.
Unfortunately, the one-sided conversation didn’t stop there.
“Ugh, the panhandlers,” he complained. “They’re all begging for money all day long. I can’t stand it.”
A few oysters later, the guy finally shut up. Still, I couldn’t shake his bad attitude towards the people who call the streets home. Is it really that big of a deal? I mean, if you don’t want to give, shouldn’t you just keep walking? Likewise, can’t you occasionally spare a few bucks?
Should You Give Money to Homeless People?
Regardless of what I think, a lot of experts advise against giving money to panhandlers. Like Fox News John Stossel, for example. “I had heard that some people beg for a living and make big bucks — $80,000 a year in some cases,” Stossel told Fox & Friends. “You really shouldn’t give to these street people,” Stossel concluded. “You are really supporting alcoholism and drug problems.”
I get that advice. I really do. We’ve all heard the stories of panhandlers who prey on people’s kindness only to get in their fancy cars and drive home to reasonably-nice life. I’m not going to lie – people who do that suck. It’s not cool to pretend that you’re homeless when you’re not – and worse – it takes money away from people who are actually homeless.
But, just like with anything else, a few bad apples ruin it for everyone. The truth is, the vast majority of homeless people are not scammers – they’re just homeless people trying to make it through another day. Consider these statistics from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty if you want to know what the real homeless look like:
- As much as twenty percent of the homeless population nationwide suffers from some sort of untreated mental illness.
- Domestic violence is the leading cause of homelessness among women.
- Nearly 60,000 United States Veterans are homeless at any time.
- One quarter of homeless people are children.
- Cities are increasingly making homelessness a crime at a time when the amount of low-income housing is decreasing. According to the NLCHP, most people become homeless because they simply can’t afford to rent anywhere.
5 Reasons It’s Okay to Give to Homeless People
No matter what anyone says, it’s perfectly fine to give to homeless people. Sure, like Stossel said, they might turn around and waste the money you give them on drugs or cigarettes. But so what? They might not. Need more convincing? Here are a few other reasons it’s probably okay to pony up a few bucks:
Because A Few Dollars May Not Mean Much to You, But it Could Mean Everything to Someone Else
When you’re middle class, a few extra dollars in your wallet can go completely unnoticed. You might not even realize you got two bucks back in change at Subway last week or that you have a few dollars in quarters sitting in your car.
But to someone who has nothing, those two dollars could mean everything. It could be the money they use to buy a sandwich for lunch or a toothbrush, or even pay for an ID so they can check into a homeless shelter.
It’s okay to assume the best and walk away. And you never know – the money you give them might help them get out of their situation, or perhaps be the source of their only joy or hope for that day.
Because It Teaches Kindness
Just last winter, my daughter and I were driving by the highway when we noticed a man begging for money on the divider. It was freezing cold that day, with temperatures predicted to fall well below freezing that night – the kind of day where the newscasters are reminding you to “bring your pets in” so they don’t die.
My daughter, who was four at the time, suggested we bring him home with us. I didn’t necessarily want to do that, so we decided to do the next best thing. We circled around to the bank, took out $60 from the ATM, and circled back by the highway to hand it to him. I watched his reaction from my rear view mirror as I drove away, and I can only describe it as complete and utter shock.
“He is going to stay warm in a hotel tonight,” my daughter said with the biggest grin on her face. (And before you ask, yes you can get a hotel room for $60 in Indianapolis. The hotel he was panhandling in front of was advertising rooms for $59 per night.)
I’m not telling this story to toot my own horn, but to illustrate the fact that being kind in front of your kids actually teaches kindness. My daughter still remembers it to this day. She brings it up from time to time and remembers fondly how “her idea” helped get a guy out of the freezing cold. Writing a big, fat check to an awesome charity is amazing, but hard for kids to understand. But handing cash to another person? Kids get it, and even better, they don’t forget.
Because Giving Is Always Nice, No Matter the Outcome
But, what if that man didn’t stay in a warm, cozy hotel that night? Does it really matter? I don’t think so. Giving is always a nice thing to do, even when the receiver doesn’t use your gift how you hoped.
To be frank, you don’t get to decide how other people get to use your gifts. You can suggest things, and you can cross your fingers, but the ultimate decision is up to them. But you don’t have to worry. When you give from the heart, it is always the right thing to do. You can sleep well at night knowing you did the right thing, regardless of the outcome.
Because You Don’t Know Their Story
It’s easy to assume the worst about homeless people, or really anyone for that matter. But is that always the right thing to do? When you consider the statistics mentioned above, it’s obvious that the answer is “no.” We shouldn’t assume anything, in fact.
Just because you walk by someone every day doesn’t mean you know their story. Ask every homeless person you know if they truly want to be homeless, and I’m guessing they will all say no. Few people would choose to be homeless by choice. According to the statistics, homelessness is often the result a few tragic mistakes that somehow spin out of control. It doesn’t make them a bad person.
According to a 2014 study from Bankrate, approximately 76 percent of Americans are living paycheck-to-paycheck. That figure includes people from all walks of life, including the rich, and is somewhat hard to believe.
But it’s also scary. Living paycheck to paycheck without a savings buffer often means that you’re only one sickness or job loss away from losing everything. When you’re used to spending every dollar you bring in, you are far less capable of figuring things out when the money dries up.
And that’s why people who live without a safety net or support system are susceptible to homelessness. Most people who don’t have savings would probably turn to family members and friends for help. But what if none of your relatives can help? When someone is struggling and their support system is also barely getting by, that can leave them to fend for themselves. Because as we all know, you can’t ask your friends to save you when they are busy saving themselves.
The bottom line: The fall from the top could be much quicker and harder than you think. Most people think it could never happen to them, but a series of unfortunate events is sometimes all it takes to move you from the inside of a fancy restaurant to the street outside.
So be kind. Or at the very least – don’t be an asshole.
What are your thoughts on giving money to homeless people?