Giving money to people who ask for it

A discussion on Facebook about giving cash and/or food to homeless people (specifically sparked by someone describing having given food to a homeless woman and her two kids) led me to link to the latest iteration of Jon Carroll's annual column “It's time again for the Untied Way.”

The core idea of the column (in my interpretation of it) is a recommendation to give some cash to people who ask for money on the streets, and to not worry about what they might do with that cash. The whole piece is worth reading, but here's a quote:

It is true that your Untied Way clients may use your gift in less than ideal ways. Some of them may obtain food and put the money toward housing; others may buy mind-altering substances or other unhealthy things. We like to think of these as “self-defined areas of need.” “Whatever gets you through the night” is not a wise tenet for social planning, but it is nevertheless a fact of life.

I don't remember when I first read this column; probably at least twenty years ago. It gave me a framework for thinking about this stuff that I've found useful. I haven't followed precisely the steps that Carroll recommends, but I have on many occasions given money to someone who's asked for it, and reminded myself that it's not up to me to police what they do with it.

(I have also given food to people who've asked me for money, and pretty much every time they've been immensely grateful. I'm not saying not to do that; I'm just saying that it's okay to give cash too.)

My friend Bruce wrote a comment that I liked in that Facebook discussion, in response to my posting the Untied Way link. I'm reproducing Bruce's comment here, with his permission:

Yes, as tempting as it is to say, “I won't give cash, but I'll give you food” so that homeless people don't spend on drugs or alcohol, the truth is that homeless need cash as well. Not everything is food. They need better shoes, they need a toothbrush and toothpaste. They need soap and a place to wash. They may need a doctor or a dentist, or any of a hundred things that we don't think about until there's no money to buy them or way to store them. They may need something to make them feel that there is a reason to make it through the night (kids of course tend to be one). And, quite honestly, given what their lives may actually be like, day in and day out, maybe they can be forgiven for feeling like they'd like to tune out for a bit, even if you'd prefer they didn't with your money. So when someone is down and out, the “no cash” rule is a rule that makes the donor feel good, very possibly without good reason.

Money, in our society, is weird; it has all sorts of complicated emotions and power dynamics and connotations attached to it. If you aren't comfortable giving money to people, I'm not going to pressure you to do so. Rather, I'm posting this in the spirit of passing along a paradigm that's been useful to me, and that might be useful and/or interesting to others.

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