Kevin Nye answers “What Do I Do When Someone Asks Me For Money?”. You should read the whole thing. His discussion on setting boundaries and on interacting with the homeless—rather than making them feel invisible—is spot on.
I found Kevin’s perspective interesting, because in homeless services. He knows the clients, the issues, and the daily struggles. As such, I wanted to quote from this section, dealing with our assumptions and our fear that “they’ll just spend it all on drugs”.
The assumption that a person experiencing homelessness will spend your generous donation on drugs or alcohol is pervasive in a way that absolutely does not align with data. The numbers of people struggling with substance use and addiction is lower than the general assumption, though it is still a major part of the conversation.
More to the point, addiction is such that it drives a person to pursue the substance they crave through any and every obstacle. While I’ve seen many people through recovery, and many who are far from it, I’ve never once heard of someone who kicked their addiction because they ran out of money. Even though this narrative affects so much giving behavior, I’ve not once heard someone say, “Yeah, I was about to give up and stop using heroin forever, but then that nice lady gave me $20 and I was able to score.”
Frankly, even if they are planning to spend your money for that, you might be preventing far riskier behavior in order to meet that perceived need. That feels “icky” to many of us, perhaps like we are enabling bad behavior. While this conversation exceeds the limitations of this piece, it is worth pointing out that the gift of money to a person has little to no effect on their ability to manage addiction. Only larger interventions like treatment, healthcare, and housing can interrupt something of that magnitude.
Sometimes, we wonder if giving cash is even helpful to the problem of homelessness. And to be fair, I’ve never seen someone lift themselves out of homelessness based on the money made from solicitation, (except when someone was trying to get a bus ticket or gas money back to a place they have refuge.) However, I have seen that money buy someone a clean pair of socks. I’ve seen it allow someone the dignity of a meal at their favorite restaurant after a hungry day. I’ve seen it buy someone a weekend in a hotel to get out of the rain, or just to take a brief respite before returning to the streets. These are not nothing. Your gift may not lift someone out of their desperate situation, but it might provide an immeasurable amount of solace and even joy in the midst of their despair.
Above all else, homelessness dehumanizes. It isolates, it discards, and it amplifies the fear we all have that maybe things aren’t going to work out for us. In your daily interactions with people experiencing homelessness, their homelessness is not truly at stake. Their humanity, though, is – whether you end up giving them money or not.