Responding to Panhandlers

I don’t know about you, but I always struggle when confronted by someone asking for money. Whether they’re sitting at an intersection with a cardboard sign or they approach me on the sidewalk, I get the same conflicted feelings:

  • Give them money. Jesus said to give to those who ask.
  • Don’t give them money. They’ll spend it on drugs or alcohol.
  • Give them money. God loves the poor.
  • Don’t give them money. They should be working!
  • Give them money. The Bible says we are to love our neighbor.
  • Don’t give them money. There are soup kitchens and homeless shelters for that purpose.

I either end up giving a half-hearted offering that won’t solve their problems and only leaves me feeling slightly less guilty, or I just avoid eye contact altogether. Neither response feels right.

It was with immense relief that I read the following article in “Christianity Today,” written by a group of people I respect, a group focused on exactly the sort of issues I’m struggling with here. I trust their wisdom in this area.

Please click on the link and read the short article,

Give to Street People? Don’t

by Ron Sider, Gary Hoag, and Andy Bales.

6 thoughts on “Responding to Panhandlers

  1. Karl posted his excellent comment on facebook, where not everyone can see it, so I’m reposting it here:

    A few times I have used the suggestion in the article to offer the beggar a meal. The responses I have gotten are dramatically varied: a fresh loaf of bread thrown back at me, acceptance without comment of a bag of fast food, and… a man sitting with me in a Wendy’s weeping out of gratitude and eating at the same time. I know there are people out there who panhandle because they want to spend it on their addictions or because it is easy money (in the right location and weather, that is). But there are also truly needy and truly hungry people who need food, rent, and the same kind of lavishly generous love we have received from our Father.

    I read Matthew 25 as saying it’s a very dangerous sin to just write them off. It may be that the real problem is that we are stingy with our time even more than with our money. Just like with any other aspect of life, we have to depend on God’s wisdom in each situation, but we are strongly admonished to err on the side of generosity. How else will the watching world know that Jesus is real? I absolutely cannot believe that turning away as we walk by is what Jesus would do. Besides, it isn’t even our money–we’re merely stewards.

    Thank you for bringing this issue up. I have noticed that in difficult discussions like this, thinking, praying, and talking through the various possibilities can often lead to deeper understanding and a closer alignment with the mind of Christ.


  2. Karl, thanks for your thoughts. Yes, every situation is unique. I have bought food for people too. At least you know you’ve done something helpful, however transient. Plus, we contribute resources to the shelters and programs in town. The problem with that is it’s so impersonal.

  3. Karl responds (again, copied from facebook):

    Someone taught me that if I put my prayers where my money is, it’s not as impersonal. It especially helps if I get a newsletter or regular communication, like missionaries are trained to do. But I also agree with you that it’s far more ef…fective. But I do think that our character is severely tested in how we deal with individual, unexpected cases like panhandlers. Just as with missionaries, I think it’s important that we plan ahead and make a choice of how to proceed when the situation arises. It sure is hard when it does, though.

  4. Interesting. I agree with Karl that giving time seems to be the thing that few people would even consider.
    For panhandlers, I too have found the offer of a meal or bus ticket separates the wheat from the chaff.
    This week we had an opportunity to help a friend who was literally giving away almost everything he owns… in a hurry (long story). What is fascinating and sad: almost nobody was willing to take the time to come help pack or pick up thousands of dollars worth of goods for a women’s shelter. Even church leaders in charge of the program.

    There always tends to be a sense that “someone else” ought to do it.

  5. Karl responds:

    Both Pete’s story about church leaders not being willing to come over and help out with the move and the mention in Leslie’s article about no churches at all being willing to help Richard are sad, very sad. Churches, too, need to plan ahead and have a methodology in place to “separate the wheat from the chaff” when the needy (or the apparently needy) come calling. We would do well to spearhead efforts in our own churches to close this gap. Otherwise we run the risk of having our church defame the very God we profess. As a friend summed up John 17, “God gives the watching world the right to judge whether Jesus is real by how we love one another.”

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