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What gives? pacificpelican

Why are we so obsessed with how homeless people spend the money we give them?

I RECENTLY READ How Panhandlers Use Free Credit Cards in The Star, and while I imagine that the writer, Jim Rankin, has his heart in the right place, I can’t help but bristle at the idea that the question is being asked and is so important to those that might drop a few quarters into the palm of a citizen sitting on the sidewalk, begging for change.

Aside from the fact that the article gave spare changers pre-paid credit cards (which we could assume are limited in their drug buying capabilities, but only in a roundabout way), the question of where your money goes when you give it to an obviously needy person is kind of sickening. 

I’m not attacking Rankin.  This is a question people are obviously keen to know the answer to.  It’s a sentiment you hear often.  “I would give money to bums, but they’d probably spend it on drugs or alcohol.”  

In the context of the article, the people given the credit cards knew their purchases would be reviewed.  We can assume their purchases were edited accordingly. One woman even felt compelled to apologize for having spent the money on cigarettes.  The fact that she felt this way and that Rankin also seemed to think it was something that implied an excuse was necessary shows the writer is on board with the perception that if we give, we should also be cognizant of what the money we give is spent on.


About a year ago, I attended a cultural awareness seminar at the South American Explorers Club.  I found the course enjoyable, but at one point, the topic of how people might spend the money they earned panhandling came up.

One clean scrubbed, bright eyed, overprivileged twenty-something brought up how she didn’t like giving money to homeless people because “they could spend it on anything.”  In the audio version of this story, this is where you here the needle scratch right across the record.  

This wasn’t the first time I had heard this line of logic.  But it was the first time I let loose a cascade of words in incredulous sequence.  

“Why is it your business how they might spend the money you give them?”

“Because they could spend it on drugs.”

“Well, if they do, they need those drugs more than you need your two pesos.  Don’t they?”

I’m not sure how this conversation ended.  I probably scared the poor girl and half the room with my outraged argument.  But in the stark light of have and have not conspicuous in every large city the world over, what purpose does this question serve?

This is what I would ask her if I had the chance to do it all over again.

Where does most of the money you spend on a cup of coffee at the Starbucks go? 

Advertising, construction, polluting paper cups.  Even a company that supports fair trade is doing its share of damage.

When you shop at Ambercrombie and Fitch, where do you suppose that money goes? 

Sweat shop labor, ads, promoting an impossible beauty standard, and blasting shoppers ears with payola.

The real answer is that you don’t know and you don’t really care.  You spend the money because you perceive that money going towards a good or service that you want and the real endpoint of that money is invisible to you.

But that doesn’t even come close to making the point.  

What do you suppose panhandling costs the person doing it?  It’s a job.  Maybe it’s not a job with any discernible purpose, but is it less harmful than working at McDonalds and contributing to deforestation, the pollution of the water supply and chipping away at the collective health of a nation?  I would argue that it is.

Photo: en.en

Panhandling is demeaning job in the grand scheme of things.  If the person panhandling is living on the street, that means he is in search every day for a safe place to sleep, something to eat, dry clothes and a shower.  If a person is homeless, that person has likely spent a less than restless night sleeping on a surface you wouldn’t set your purse down on. 

He feels like shit, is probably in pain and less than ideal health and his diet is a mish-mash of whatever he can get his hands on. Finding a place to take a dump is a problem. Can you imagine what that’s like on a day to day basis?

Then he gets to spend all day on another hard surface asking stone faced strangers who would prefer not to acknowledge him for spare change.

Who are you to place a value judgement on what he buys?  If someone is subjected to all these hardships and chooses to buy alcohol or speed, he obviously needs the speed more than he needs your judgement.  And every dollar you give to a drug addict is a dollar that person is not going to steal from your lilly white ass while you walk by him with your head up it.

If you give money to a panhandler, you can know one thing for certain.  The person you’re giving your money to is the one who’s going to use it.  For nourishment, a clean pair of socks, or to shoot up, your charity is going directly to the source. 

What other form of charity is as pure as that?  There’s no processing fee, no one in a rented office getting their not-for-profit-ass paid, no transportation cost, and most importantly, there is no one making decisions about the most responsible way to spend the money on his behalf.  You are giving a little money that you won’t miss to someone who needs it.  That’s it.

Vetting charity is for organizations.   Spare change is for busses, parking meters, tip jars and people on the street who need it.

That’s what I would say to her if I had the chance to do it over again.

Community Connection

Find out where travelers are most hassled in World’s Most Annoying Cities and the comments field where those with change to give compete for the most annoying beggars in the US and throw your two cents in.

Or if you’re more interested in participating in freeganomics, pop in at BNT where you can learn to live off the good stuff that finds its way to the trash in Dumpster Diving: The Easiest Way to Find Food.

Culture + Religion


About The Author

Kate Sedgwick

Editor-at-large, Kate Sedgwick, works from Buenos Aires where she organizes her live storytelling project, Second Story Buenos Aires. Read more about her than you might want to know at her blog, and follow her infrequent tweets @KateSedgwick.

  • Cornelius Aesop

    This reminds me of a time I spent in South America, my friend Bruno was walking ahead of me as a homeless young man walked up next to him striking up a conversation as we walked out to explore what the night would hold for us. After a few persistent hand gestures pointing to the man’s empty pockets and shoeless feet, my friend dug into his pockets and gave him some money. Later he told me he usually doesn’t give money to beggars, but this man eventually gave in and told my friend that he needed the money for drugs and in this honesty my friend felt the desire to share some change. Not in a sense of drugs are an acceptable way to spend your money but that the beggar was honest.

    Should it have taken this to share money, well in most cases there are more beggars then money I have. So in that sense, this man earned it in his different albeit frank approach.

  • Dan

    I would venture to say that people ask this question because they don’t want to be directly supporting someone’s perceived immoral behavior. Some may not agree with that idea but I think that plays a role in many people’s decision on whether to give change to the homeless.

  • mattnnz

    The author can spare me her self-righteous outrage. In the developed world you can make a safe bet the beggar wants money for drugs or alcohol. At the shelter they offer food and a place to sleep but they can’t get drunk or high there. The addict would rather go hungry because eating often interferes with his buzz and would rather sleep outside than deal with shelter rules. I think it is a legitimate ethical question. Do you want to contribute to another person’s self-destruction? In the developing world it is a different question. The addict may need that money not only to feed his addiction but to survive.

  • chris

    This point of view does not take into account the end result of your giving to the homeless. When you mention buying Starbucks coffee you write that your money goes to advertising, construction and pollution. So what exactly is the end result of giving to the homeless?

    Giving change to beggars if fine if you’re passing through a neighborhood, you believe youre doing a good dead. However, some of us live in a neighborhood where homelessness is a persistent bother to the community. Homeless men get drunk and high and start fights, making the neighborhood unsafe for everyone who resides there. I would rather my change go toward operation of a shelter or a occupational training project (which will help get them off the street) than buy someone a beer for the night.

    This is not a value judgment, its just the reality of the situation. To choose to ignore the end result of your giving is giving irresponsibly.

    • Kate

      Yes, Chris. Those pesky homeless sure do get in a good citizen’s way. What a nuisance they are! I get so tired of almost tripping over them when I’m just trying to get to work. And the homeless shelters – there is co much room in them. Plenty of housing if the lazy bastards would just sober up! Sorry. I hadn’t considered that!

  • mason

    this article is a joke.

  • chris

    I didn’t realize that my questioning of your logic would result in self righteous defensiveness. Its perfectly legitimate to question where the money you give is being used. I find it baffling that you’re scoffing at the use of social programs and shelters that are meant to help the homeless.

    Remember that the names you’re calling the homeless in your last post came from your mind, not mine.

    • Kate

      And my only point is that where the money goes is a question so seldom asked that the logic people give for not handing out a couple quarters they’re not going to miss is fallacious in the extreme. I don’t give money to every panhandler I see, but when I do, I realize that it’s none of my business how that individual chooses to spend it.

      When there are so many scams, and you’re funding the killing of people overseas by paying your taxes, and when nearly every purchase you make funds a cause you would probably be sickened by if you examined it too deeply, I don’t understand the self righteous question of where spare change goes when you give it to someone with nothing at all.

      You throw out there that there are homeless shelters. Yes there are. And I’m sure that those places are doing good work, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. And in reality, I know from experience that an institutional setting it not a solution for many people who are either mentally ill or drug addicted or worse. Some people are incapable of complying with a system that fucks them over and over again.

      I am in no position financially to contribute to a homeless shelter in any meaningful way. If I see someone asking for money, I give it if I’m able and in the mood and have a small amount of money ready. And I don’t give a fuck what they do with it. That person needs it, I have it and I don’t and it’s their business what they do with it. It’s not easy to beg. It’s not an easy life and there are no easy solutions.

    • Kirsten

      Just out of curiosity, how much money do you or most people donate to assisting the over-populated, disease-spreading, under-funded homeless shelters in your city? I hear a lot of people say “I’d rather give my money to something to a shelter or somewhere I know it’s going to good” but I never actually met anyone who gives to such charities.

      The fact is, giving change is nice for the very short-term and most likely really bad for the long term. Just like a lot of foreign aid, food programs in schools, free medical checkups and other charities. But we do it because hell, if we can’t survive in the short term then who the heck cares about the long term? The African children can’t get good grades in school if they’re starving and have no food at home, and the homeless people can’t make it another couple of days with food, water, or drugs to stop the withdrawals that may very well cause seizures or coma.

      It’s a shitty plan that doesn’t help anyone for more than a day but sometimes people just need that extra day, and not everything we do can save the entire future but sometimes that short amount of time is better than giving nothing at all.

  • Exeter Fredly


    I find your tone in this thread bordering on offensive. There is some sound reasoning behind wanting to know where the money you give a homeless person is going. Your naming calling and dismissiveness is juvenile.

    People give change to panhandlers in an effort to help a person who is in need. Many of these people don’t view helping someone buy drugs or alcohol as positively assisting that person. Remember, these are people who, for whatever reason, are incapable of looking after themselves and their needs. Thus, there is a difference between my change going towards food/shelter/health and substances used to escape reality. The temporary relief of whatever hit my change helps fund is not helping them away from the life you so accurately describe as wretched. So, it isn’t self-righteous to ask ‘where will the money go’ – it is part of an honest effort to help. Unfortunately, it is often communicated poorly, but I do believe that’s where the ‘overprivileged twenty-something’ would have lead you had you forced her to think through her gut instinct.

    Another point – you live in Buenos Aires so I’m sure you’ve read about the detrimental effect of paco on users and the crime associated with it. Those few pesos you so righteously give without question may fund the high which leads to my ‘lilly white ass’ being assaulted/robbed while walking home. More than likely not, but it is disingenuous, or at a minimum shows a poor understanding, to not acknowledge any harm may come from use of drugs/alcohol.

    Your indignant argument is not constructive, nor does it do much to help the people you so passionately claim to defend. Give freely and without question if you think it best, but please put forth a more thoughtful stance as to why everyone else should follow your lead.

    • Kate

      My comments are plenty thoughtful. I really wonder if you’ve ever been in a similar situation to that that homeless people are in. I highly doubt it. And your assertion that homeless people are incapable of caring for themselves is patently absurd. It is this line of thought that forces people to cede all power to people who don’t even know them if they want to receive any kind of help at all.

      Homeless adults aren’t children. But coming from a society where we are constantly infantilized, I do see that anyone who finds fitting into the confines of “productive member of society” impossible is seen as someone whose choices can not be trusted.

      The fact is that most homeless people are not harming anyone. And the fact is that if someone is on drugs, it’s not a given that they will assault someone. And the fact is that people who are living on the street are there for a myriad of reasons that are surely so far beyond your comprehension on any kind of meaningful level that I wonder what the point of writing this response to your comment is at all.

      There but for the grace of something or other go I. I am certain that short of a few advantages that I was very lucky to have had, I would be one of those people, and I have actually lived on the street in the winter in a large city and the only difference between me and many of the homeless was that I had people in my life to help me back to living as a productive, job holding member of society.

      I have sympathy for these people and I also recognize that many know their own needs more intimately than any government agency or treatment program ever will. The lack of respect they are subjected to in order to “receive help” in the way that you seem to think is the only acceptable way to escape from that sort of life is degrading and impossible for many but that doesn’t make them less than adults.

      I wonder how long you would last in that situation? With the attitude you’ve got, I’d venture to say it wouldn’t be very long. These people take care of themselves in situations that would drive many to suicide or worse. I can’t imagine the face you would wear toward a world that treated you with the indignities that many homeless people face. I would argue that they’re doing a better job taking care of themselves than you are because the effort inherent in surviving is probably at minimum 20X the output you exert.

      • Exeter Fredly

        Thank you for discounting my stand point because of who you believe I am. I don’t claim to understand all the complexities of the reasons for panhandling hence my use of the phrase ‘for whatever reason’. That is a judgement free statement. If a person is panhandling for change they are by definition incapable of meeting their own needs; or they are panhandling as a job, in which case I respectfully refuse to engage in any discussion of the merits of said activity.

        So, we are in the world of people who are asking for assistance out of need. You are correct I do not know each person’s history nor do I know what will help them best. However, my giving change is based on my desire to help. My experience is that few individuals on the street panhandling want to be there but they are dealing with difficulties (external and internal) keeping them from moving on to whatever they deem a better place. The article you referenced reinforced this through portraits of the panhandlers implying none of them were happy about their circumstances.

        I see nothing uncharitable about saying to a person I’m not supportive of any given use of my change. Let’s move it away from drugs and towards something innocuous like hair dye. Hypothetically, I encounter a person asking for spare change because they wish to dye their hair and one asking for money to buy a sandwich. If the first person has all their other needs met but needs money for a change of hair colour I would direct my change towards the person wanting a sandwich. Not because I think that person is wrong to change the colour of their hair, but because I’m more interested in charity going towards helping those having difficulty meeting their immediate survival needs.

        This is the crux of our difference. I view giving change as an act of charity and I don’t view unaccountable spending of charity as a positive. Thus, asking where my money is going isn’t the egregious condescension you state. The same way the person is free to spend the money on whatever they deem fit, I am free to make the decision if I want to fund that expense.

        You earlier referenced that the public blindly gives money to governments and corporations doing things the paying public likely doesn’t support. Well guess what, that isn’t an argument to just hand over money and not ask questions. Rather, it is an indictment on the public and their lack of conviction at all levels.

        As an aside – there are plenty of individuals who live outside the parameters of ‘productive member of society’, who are not panhandling.

        • Kate

          Let’s not forget that your original argument implied that I had put little thought in the matter, or I would surely think as you do. I suppose I’m meant to be honored that you find I may be capable of such thought. I would just like to formally register the fact that I disagree with your point of view for the many reasons I have stated above. Here’s where you jump in and get the last word.

  • aelle

    I remember a radio interview of a Holocaust survivor a few years ago. The man happened to mention his consumption of tobacco, and the journalist couldn’t help but comment on how bad smoking was. The interviewee angrily set him and his judgment straight, telling how in the camps he was only living for the next hour, for the next cigarette. What else are you going to hope for when you have zero social status?
    When you have nothing to live for, your addictions keep you alive. And beggars could certainly use a little less judgment.

  • Nancy Harder

    Props, Kate. It’s absolutely not our right to judge what homeless people/panhandlers spend their money on. A ton of people in the US bought houses they couldn’t afford and charged things on credit they couldn’t afford which helped lead us into this financial trough. I could even argue that homeless people/panhandlers are being more financially responsible than many non-homeless Americans.

    More importantly though, more compassion and empathy could go a long way. We’re all people sharing this speck of time and space in the grand scheme of the world.

    • Kate

      Nicely put. Thanks, Nancy.

  • Kathleen

    This campaign by London homeless charity Thamesreach is quite interesting: although the resarch supporting it is only relevant to London.

    The FAQ has some interesting arguments.

  • Alouise

    This is a very interesting article, and really something I haven’t thought of before. I believe in the right of an individual, so in some ways what a person does with the spare change I give them isn’t any of my concern. But in other ways I don’t want to contribute to someone’s addiction, I want to know that I’m helping. I guess helping is a pretty subjective term.

  • Lynnie

    I agree mattnnz.

    If Starbucks was owned by a Drug Lord, Mafia boss, etc., would you support it? I wouldn’t.

    When I was 8 or 9, a man outside a strip mall was asking for money, saying something about wanting money for food. My mother didn’t give him any, but I had just bought myself a packet of peanut butter crackers. I ran back to him and offered them to him. He knocked them out of my hand onto the ground. I was confused, but learned from it.

    Recently, I was in NYC, about to enter a corner shop with a large buffet table. A man outside got my attention and asked if I would buy him some food. I said I would and asked what he wanted. He wouldn’t come in but knew exactly what he wanted. I tried to get him to take more, but he only wanted ribs, mashed potatoes and a drink. As I was handing it to him, a woman came by who must get him food regularly. It was a great idea. If I didn’t have 3 children and a husband waiting for me, I would have liked to talk to the guy.

    I do like the idea of giving directly to people in need, but giving them what they need. (we gave extra clothes directly to people in shantytown in Mexico) I now give items to women’s shelter instead of charity shop that sells them for money for charity. So I don’t even like giving money to charities if I can give to people directly.

  • Emily

    When you give money to a homeless person, you are making a gift to him or her, albeit a small one. When you give a gift, it is not your place to decide or even question how it will be used. To ask a homeless person to justify how he or she will spend the money only serves to further demoralize and stigmatize them. If you don’t want to give money, then don’t. But if you do, you should do it without any expectation of how it will be spent. If you are so concerned that they might spend the money on drugs or alcohol, perhaps you could take them into the nearest deli and buy them a sandwich. Ask them what they might like to eat and bring it to them. Perhaps in addition to spending a little bit of money that you won’t miss, you could even — and I know this sounds crazy — converse with them and treat them like human beings.

    Kate’s point is an interesting one — if we truly followed our dollars from our pockets to their endpoint, we might be shocked at what we find. Many of us give very little thought to what we support when we make innocuous purchases. This is why Democrats in America are not currently shopping at Target. But that’s a different story…

  • Sandy

    I work at a liquor store in a poor area of the Vancouver suburbs and after serving the beggars, I would never in my life give change. If I have food on me, I’ll offer it, if they say they’re hungry I’ll buy them a meal. There’s one man who comes in and constantly asks us to loan him money. I won’t lend him the equivalent of an hours wage so he can spend it on beer, get drunk and make trouble for me later.
    I think we’ve all just lost faith in any good intention beggars have because of the sheer amount of them.

  • somchai

    A quick google for ethical travel and begging yields many results, I’d suggest going and having a read. Many people have considered all of the moral ambiguities before, why not read and think about what they have to say? No reason to reinvent the wheel.

    • Carlo Alcos

      What exactly is your point? Aren’t we reinventing the wheel everyday? After all, as the Barenaked Ladies said, “It’s all been done.” She’s creating discussion about an important topic and she’s doing so from the perspective of someone who has been there, someone with firsthand experience.


      I can see how Kate’s style can be offensive to some people, but she’s rattling the cage. Our defenses usually come up so strongly when we know we’re wrong in some way, so when we’re probed like that it can become uncomfortable and we find/invent ways to justify our actions/thoughts.

      I’ll be honest, if I thought that my money would go to alcohol/drugs, then I wouldn’t give it either, because I’d rather give it to someone who’s starving or could use it to put themselves up for the night. That’s me thinking on a surface level, but Kate makes excellent points about how we tend not to think where the money goes for things we buy without a second thought.

      Why is that? Why are we OK with supporting a system that abuses children or advocates wiping out rainforest. Why are we justified in buying pretty jewelry that is the result of raping the earth? We feel so righteous when we’re not supporting a homeless person’s drug habit, but it really is hypocritical when we turn around and buy a $3 coffee where the ones who do the hard work, the farmers, get a few cents.

      Most of us are hypocrites, believe it. Unless you’re a monk living in solitude in the Himalayas you’re probably in breach of your own ethical/moral standards, you just either don’t want to think about it, or are that ignorant not to notice it. At least acknowledge it. It’s a good first step.

      • Kate

        Damn, Carlo. Thanks. You are too kind, but I’ll take it (and spend it on drugs).

      • somchai

        I’m curious if you did google and read what others have thought?

        I’m assuming not or you wouldn’t have answered the way you did.

        Simply put if you like seeing homeless people do give them money, you will perpetuate homelessness and begging. If you don’t like homelessness then don’t support it.

        If a homeless person knocks at the back door of just about any restaurant and volunteers to work for food, they will be fed, Ask at any business to work for $5, you will be put to work. Think to yourself how it is that I know this. I’ve been desperately poor in this life, but never begged. There are extremely poor people throughout the world, , , who don’t beg.

        If you like people to beg and be homeless, pay them to do so, otherwise don’t.

  • mattnnz

    I really don’t think comparing the money you give to Starsux for a cup of coffee is a direct comparison. The things that happen due the activities of that company are really indirect consequences. I chose not to further a people’s self destruction through giving to panhandlers. On the other hand do what you wish with YOUR money. Same way after the beggar guy has the money, it his own business what he does. I simply don’t with to be part of it. The part that is correct if you don’t like how your money is used, don’t give it to those companies. Every dollar is tiny vote that can reward good behavior and punish bad.

  • Julie Schwietert

    I published this article because it’s the author’s honest, well-reasoned, and out of the ordinary argument about panhandling. I also published it because it made me think. As a former social worker who lives in New York, I long ago developed a policy of not giving money to anyone… period. The city has plenty of resources for people who need a meal, a shower, a place to stay, a Metrocard, and even money for their next hit. Being a social worker was the way I wanted to make a difference- donating a buck wasn’t, and still isn’t after reading this article.

    But that’s not really Kate’s point. Her point is that if you choose to give, then should you really care about where your money’s going? And I think her larger point is relevant, in particular: You give your money to dozens of “causes” every day, and you rarely stop to think about where it ends up or what sort of practices your money is supporting.

  • Kate

    I know this is atypical, but in light of some of the views expressed here, I thought I’d pass this link of a story some guy shared on Reddit:

  • Steve Neiglos

    Cool reddit post – But it doesnt have much to do with your article. I could juts as easily make a post about a guy I gave money to drinking a 40 on the street.

    availability heuristic- is a phenomenon (which can result in a cognitive bias) in which people predict the frequency of an event, or a proportion within a population, based on how easily an example can be brought to mind.

  • Theresa

    wow. one thing i don’t think has been raised is that sometimes when we give to beggars, we don’t just give to be kind, we give to apease our own guilt about their situation.

    In my town alot of beggars are children or teenagers and it’s hard not to feel extremely guilty when faced with a child begging on the street. But often supporting this begging is keeping them out of school or involved in gangs. There is no easy solution, and maybe im wrong but i tend not to give out money on the street.

  • Ahfavro

    I think you make an interesting point Kate. Being homeless is a terrible thing and the fact that most of us spend money on frivolous things we dont need, sparing some change to homeless people seems like a better use of our money.

    However, there are strong counter-arguments.

    Firstly, most people (me included) feel a level of responsibility for homeless people when you give them change. If they use it to buy drugs using money you gave them, you have just enabled their addiction and studies show that drug abuse is a major cause of homelessness. As a result, that person is going to be consumed by their drug habit, stay homeless and can potentially overdose or contract HIV and die. 

    Secondly, by sparing change to a homeless person, you give him a financial incentive to stay homeless and continue begging. Studies have shown that panhandlers can make anywhere from a couple dollars to $300 a day. Those who can panhandle successfully, like those who find a way to support their drug habits, have no financial incentive to get help, find gainful employment and integrate into society. 

    I’m not saying that homeless people deserve their fate. Anyone who has to beg for money has hit rock bottom, like you said. However, I think that we can do more than spare the loose change in our pocket to help them. If we really want to help them, we should spare them some food, food vouchers, or try and get them to a shelter, church or rehab centre. We should put our spare change into community action programs that can provide a roof, warm meal and possibility of a life outside of the streets.

    Sparing change is often a way to assuage guilt. We feel guilty for these people, but don’t really want to do anything to change their situation so we throw some loose change at them and hope the problem goes away. It doesnt and we just make the problem worse.

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