Fortunately, there’s a rather simple answer, and that is: “It depends.”
There’s a danger to adopting a “one-size-fits-all” approach when we’re asked for money. A stock answer or unbending principle flirts with treating the man or woman in front of us as a problem to be solved or awkward situation from which to quickly move on, as opposed to a person to be encountered and somehow to bless. A good answer to the question depends entirely on a specific situation as it presents itself and the unique individual asking for money. If there are unbending principles to apply, they are love and dignity.
The vast majority of people living on the street are
, or enslaved to addiction, or both. Neither changes the fact that the person standing at the stop light or sitting on the corner with a cup out is a human being, beautiful for simply having been made in the image of God. To be asked for money is to be asked another question, “What would love do?” And love takes a variety of forms.
Sometimes, and many people do this, the request for money is met with an offer to buy some food, even a meal. If the need is actually food, then to provide food is better than giving cash. And it gives the opportunity to hear each other’s story.
Sometimes, just to pause and have a brief conversation with the person can be more meaningful than any money, to offer a gracious human encounter that says, “You matter, you are someone, you’re not ‘just a homeless guy.’”
Sometimes we can’t give. In those times I will always reply with eye contact and an “I’m sorry brother” or “I’m sorry, ma’am” and explain I don’t have anything to offer right then. Most of the time the reply is gracious right back. The point is to say, “I’ve seen you and you are worth more than being ignored.”
On a couple of occasions I’ve taken the time to challenge the person asking for money to take stock of their situation and take responsibility to get out of it. Something in the interchange called for it. The most loving thing to do was to say, “You deserve better than the life you’re settling for.” It’s good to know of organizations that exist to help folks in this situation, like
Central Union Mission, whose doors are always open to anyone who wants to get of the street.