Do Whatever You Want

When people find out that I worked with the homeless, they sometimes ask me if they should give money to panhandlers. I used to give the standard social work answer: “If you give them money, it could be used for drugs or alcohol. It’s better to give them a snack, or to donate money to agencies that help the homeless.” Eventually I realized how insulting and hypocritical that answer was.

It’s insulting because it reinforces the stereotype that people are homeless because they use drugs and alcohol, or that all the homeless use drugs and alcohol. It also implies that they don’t know any better than to blow their money on things that won’t improve their situation. And this coming from social workers who say we’re trying to reduce the stigma of homelessness, and that we care for the people we “serve.”

It’s also hypocritical because it implies that the homeless shouldn’t drink, even though it’s okay for others. If you have dinner at my house, I’m likely to offer you wine or beer with the meal. Not only am I removing any doubt about whether the money will be used for alcohol, I’m actively promoting the consumption of “spirits.” Heaven forbid someone who is homeless touch alcohol, though.

These days, when I’m asked about giving out money, I just say “Do whatever you want.” I don’t mean to sound flippant when I say this (okay, yes, I do), but I want to recognize that there is no one answer that will fit each situation. If someone feels strongly that they should not hand out money, I have no objection. I just ask that they say “no” respectfully and without derision. If they want to offer the person a snack or some socks instead, wonderful. But if someone decides to give money to a panhandler, trusting that they will use it to buy themselves food or to get on a bus, I won’t criticize them. They are being generous and showing faith in another person’s goodness and wisdom. Who am I to tell them the world would be a better place if they were suspicious and tight-fisted to those who really need help?

I know that giving cash to a homeless person won’t solve all their problems. But then, neither will giving them socks or snacks. Even putting them in touch with a social worker who focuses on housing will almost never solve the problems they are facing right now (although it can produce benefits down the road). 

Of course, what I’m saying about how the homeless are treated goes far beyond that population. We are suspicious of “them” because “they” don’t live the way we think “they” should, or because we know better than “them.” We know how to solve their problems, even if we haven’t faced the same challenges “they” do. Or we keep separate from “them” altogether.

We may never really understand “them” or become friends, but at the very least we don’t need to look down on “them.”

by Marti Malby, Director Peace House Community – A Place to Belong

This article originally appeared in “The Alley,” the newspaper for the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.