When you’re asked on the street: To give or not?

I  found myself on the road for work last week, and as I walked with two colleagues along the streets around Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, we were confronted several times over a couple of days by people asking for help in the form of money. Each one had a story to tell or an explanation of how the money would be used. (One thing I heard three times was that there was a nearby hostel or shelter that would give them a bed for the night for $15.)

This presented, of course, the perennial question that we face in such situations — to give money or not to give money?

My two colleagues, both of whom I respect and enjoy, and one of whom had spent a year doing inner city ministry with the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, were both of the opinion that it is more often better not to give money to folks asking on the street, because of the harmful ways the people who receive it might and, in their opinions, often do use it. One of them repeated comments she had heard from the director of an urban soup kitchen, basically, “Please don’t give them money. They almost always use it in ways that will do them no good.” Another told the commonly heard story of trying to offer food instead of money, and the food was rejected angrily.

I’m of a different opinion on this question, but let me be clear — this post is not about pointing out that my colleagues, or those who think like them on this, are wrong and less good or — what would be laughable to suggest —  “less holy.” That a person on the street to whom I give money might use it to buy drugs or alcohol certainly is a real possibility, and avoiding that is a completely valid concern. There’s no right or wrong, black or white answer here. I’m raising a question, because when each of us is approached for help like this, we have a decision to make. Not deciding is not an option.

My own response is drawn from my experience in working with people in poverty, particularly during two years in central Appalachia. My instincts from that experience, and from the formation in it that I received most directly from the two Ursuline sisters who founded the two agencies for which I worked, is to recognize that the money might not be used well, but that it’s better to err on the side of generosity than caution. In a nutshell, I would rather give money to someone who will use it poorly than refuse money to someone who needs it badly. As Sr. Brendan Conlon, OSU, often said to me, “The only way to guarantee that you are never taken advantage of is never to offer help.”

If it’s possible to provide something to those who ask in the form of food or gift certificates, rather than cash, that does indeed reduce the ways the gift could be misused. I’ve gone this route myself often,  and each time, without exception, these gifts have been accepted with gratitude. But it doesn’t guarantee that they won’t find a way to sell or otherwise misuse that kind of gift.

The bottom line for me tends to come down to Jesus’s words in Matthew 25, which come immediately to mind each time I’m approached by someone begging on the street.

“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nationswill be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

I will have plenty enough to answer for when I stand before God one day. “Lord, I was afraid you’d use it badly” is not one of the things I will want to have to offer.

2 thoughts on “When you’re asked on the street: To give or not?

  1. Thank you for this. There is a man who begs outside of a store in Kansas City that I used to frequent. Every time I would give him a dollar, not much, but something. Every time he said, “Thank you, ma’am.” So I said, “You’re welcome, sir.” We’d visit and I’d walk away knowing I had encountered Christ.

    About a year ago I went to that store with one of my cousins. He was there, so I pulled out a dollar and gave it to her to put in his cup. He thanked her and we went on our way. My cousin told her dad this story, who then told me that if I want to teach his kids to give money to the poor, that wasn’t the way to do it. I was so flabbergasted by his statement that I couldn’t even think of anything to say.

    We are called to wash each other’s feet–even when we know they’re going to get dirty again.

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