This was posted by me on the Mennonite Poverty Forum, to which you are all invited as well:

It can be a struggle to know what to do for folks who approach us for
money, or who are holding a sign asking for support. We want to help,
but we often don’t know how. If we give them money, will they use it
for drugs or alcohol? By giving them something, are we perpetuating
their cycle of poverty? Is it better to give to an organization?

As the debate rages on, and we give neither to the beggar nor an
organization that helps them, the one flying the sign is there on the
street, in need. The rumors are not true–beggars do not make an
excellent salary. A really good day might gain them thirty dollars.
But normally, they might get ten or less.

As for alcohol and drugs, yes, some will spend the money they receive
to get drunk. Others are hoping to get a place to sleep for the
night. Others are just wanting to get a decent meal.

One thing we need to keep in mind, however, that a person begging is
desperate for something. No one stands with a sign or approaches
people for money unless they are desperate. It isn’t exactly the best
employment opportunity–one only takes it if other options are
lacking. To beg is to face being ignored, disrespected and openly
insulted. No one would take this as their job unless they are at the
bottom of their options.

So what do we do? The choice that I have made is to carry around with
me items that would assist the beggars, but would not be used to
destroy themselves. Below, I have listed a few items that would be
used to help a beggar, without any detriment. Some of these items we
might have in our cupboards or closets. I just carry these items near
my driver’s seat, so I am ready to pass them out to anyone holding a
sign as I’m passing by.

In this way, I am able to show Christ’s mercy and love without any

By the way, if you would like to hand out tracts to folks, or a list
of meals in the area, they are only appreciated if a practical gift
accompanies the paper. If you just give paper, that’s a good way to
encourage littering. But if you display Christ’s love, they might
assume that your offer of the gospel is sincere and not just someone
else disrespecting them.

A friendly chat about the weather
Breakfast bars or energy bars
A hamburger
A coffee
A sandwich (Food prepared at home might be refused by some, because
they are concerned that someone might harm them)
A small blanket (not too hard to carry with them)
A kind word (Very rare in their business, and VERY welcome)
An individual juice
A bagged lunch
Individual chips

Besides this, the other thing I attempt to do is to talk to the person
to find out who they are and what their specific needs are. Some
folks are taken aback by this, but others really appreciate being
treated as a human being and not just a post holding a sign (or a

Some of the best signs I’ve seen:

Tired of eating pigeon
Betcha can’t hit me with a quarter
My family got killed by ninjas–Trying to pay for kung fu lessons
Throw change at me

Steve K

Comments (6)

  1. ST

    Wow, Steve. I just had this on my mind today as I worked at the county’s women’s shelter. Here’s part of the cycle I see from my angle.

    People call and want to give us donations. Some people even are desperate that we come pick up their donations, saying…”I gotta get all this stuff outta here…it’s in the way!”. The people that really get me are those that send junk in boxes to us with the prices from their garage sale still on them. Clearly, these were the things that didn’t sell.

    On one hand, thanks. On the other hand, the crap mirrors people’s feelings towards those who use the services of the shelter. I am not asking only for new donations. I’m asking for a whole new way of thinking about how we care for one another.

    I just want to ask these people, so eager to do something good (and easy), if they would be willing to host one of the women and her children for a week or more as she recovers from domestic violence and decides how to change the situation. That would be so much more personal, and challenging. That would be the spirit of Christmas.

    Today, my supervisor was shocked when I asked a question to a potential donor who was looking for an organization through which to “give a child a present from Santa to make their holidays happier”. I simply asked her if she had checked with her neighbors’ children. She replied, “Oh, I don’t know my neighbors.” Frankly, getting stuff won’t make children happier and healthier…but knowing their neighbors care about them, will.

    This is not exactly the same thing you posted about (and I greatly appreciate your post). It is the opinion of a social service worker frustrated with the conception of “help and charity” created by society and capitalism.

    Each one of us CAN change the way we respond to people in need or in a crisis or stressful situation by practicing sharing kind words with EVERYONE we know and seeing ourselves connected with all people and all of the Earth.

  2. SteveK (Post author)

    I completely agree, ST. We receive a bunch of junk as well. I think that most people don’t realize that every donation means work for us. And if that works leads to assist someone else, great. But if that work means just more trips to the dump, then we are just their free garbage service, not a benevolence organization.

    Another thing I liked about your response is the focus on relationship, not charity. In my city, Portland, there is an attempt to get people in churches in relationship with folks on the street. This takes the focus off of, “what stuff can I give them” to “how can I best help my friend?” Hopefully, it will mean that more people realize that stuff doesn’t replace positive social interaction– which is one of the greatest needs of street folks.

    Steve K

  3. TimN


    Thanks for this very practical analysis of how to respond to people asking for money. This is a question I’ve never really known what to do with, but one that I’ve had to face more often now that I’m living and working in Chicago. I confess that I have often used the drug or wealthy beggar rumor as an excuse to ignore people asking for money.

    I appreciate that you quickly move past the debate to offer some practical ways to connect with our fellow human beings forced to beg. I’ve haphazardly tried similar things in the past, but your list reminds me how simple it would be to offer a consistent response to the human being on the other side of the sign. I’ll do my best to take your challenge to heart.

  4. Skylark

    Thank you for this post. I had this on my mind when I watched ¨Code Unknown¨ last night. There’s a Russian woman in France in the movie who deals constantly with the disrespect people give her when begging. She goes home and cries some nights because she feels so horrid, she told another character.

    This gives me ideas for what I could do when I am in a place that actually has beggars. My current location is out in the country enough that begging is virtually nonexistent.

  5. Jon A

    Wow, powerful post and powerful responses.

    I’m sure it’s already been mentioned here, but let me throw in a plug for Freecycle.

    I had the opportunity to list some usable, good quality things that we wanted to get rid of before we moved. Without going into the whole story, the crib and other baby items we gave away went to a woman whose boyfriend left her–and took all the baby stuff that he bought for the child. Some gardening equipment and chemicals went to a couple who, through their church, helped rehab houses.

    I get the sense that many people, both those in need and those who help those in need, look to Freecycle for things most of us don’t know are needed. What a great way to match goods and needs.

  6. MaryC

    You might also want to take a look at Rabbi Charles A. Kroloff’s ’54 ways you can help the homeless’, written back in 1993. The whole thing is published on the website:

    Alternatively, a slimmed down version of it (35 ways) is available on’s website at:

    Or you can buy it from Amazon for a cent (plus shipping).

    Some of the references and statistics may be a little dated, but I believe the basic ideas are still sound.

Comments are closed.