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Community & Behavioral Health | Recovery | Social Change


Changing the Conversation

Five Ways to Interact with People who are Panhandling

10/28/16 03:20 PM | Rachel Ehly | Housing, Homelessness


Right before my eyes, I have seen the numbers of people asking for money increase in New Bedford, MA. Seven years ago, you might have seen two or three people a month. Now, there are four at a single intersection every day.

You may ask, how do I interact with these individuals? Do I give money, or will they just spend it on drugs and alcohol? Do I provide food? Do I put my head down and pretend I don’t see them at all? Are they even homeless? Am I being played? Depending on whom you ask, you will most likely get a different answer. The Center for Social Innovation and t3 have a wealth of knowledge about homelessness. So, I asked my colleagues, what do they do when someone asking for money approaches them? There were many different opinions, but five patterns arose.

  1. Give money if you can.

Personally, I try to give money, even just a dollar or two if I have it. This usually goes with a “have a good day” or “be well.” One colleague, Katie, has given metro cards with money left on them. Katie and another colleague also mention purchasing street newspapers (for example, Spare Change News) to support vendors who are often experiencing homelessness.

  1. Give food.

Another colleague, Kathleen, mentioned giving her lunch or part of her lunch to people asking for food and money while on her way to work. If you are worried about how an individual will use money, food is one way to provide sustenance.

  1. Acknowledge the person.

The people we see asking for money are just that, people, like you and me. If you don’t have money or food, or don’t want to give either, you may put your head down at the red light and pretend they aren’t there. Whatever your emotions and thoughts, the least we can do as human beings is to acknowledge a fellow person. Read Lindsay Morrissey's lessons learned from her father's experience of homelessness.

  1. Provide options for services.

These days, if you don’t have a computer, you may not know about the resources in your community. You may not know there are fuel assistance programs, career service centers, or food banks right there in your neighborhood. A pamphlet for non-denominational services may be the start to helping someone receive the supports they need to improve their current situation.

  1. Do not judge.

If you don’t want to give money, don’t have food, or don’t want to make eye contact, at least don’t judge. There are probably only one or maybe two circumstances that make you different from a person panhandling. I often wonder, what makes me so lucky to have a house and enough food and loved ones? Is it my educational background or my financial, marital, or employment status? What I often find is that my husband and I are, and always have been, just one job loss, accident, illness, or death away from being in the same position. The reality is that people who are panhandling are just like you and me. They are humans who are struggling at this time in their lives. 

At the Center for Social Innovation, we believe in working to make systematic changes. A colleague, Jon, asked, “How do we balance responding to a personal need, but still solve systemic issues?” Another colleague urged us to think of panhandling as not just an individual issue, although it is that, but to help solve the larger problem. “We need to look at the structures in place in our community that prohibit people from engaging in employment or finding social services.” Working towards larger systemic change is absolutely necessary, but this doesn’t mean we should ignore the individuals who are simply looking for a meal or a place to stay tonight. 

Most importantly, we should be empathic, we should be human, and always remember: Never criticize another person until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Learn more about addressing homelessness by listening in to a t3 podcast "Ending Youth Homelessness: The 100-Day Challenge."

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Image by Aaron Alexander (CC BY 2.0), cropped to focus on the individuals. 

Rachel Ehly

Written by Rachel Ehly

Rachel has worked with t3 since May 2012. As Managing Director, Rachel overseas all of t3's day-to-day activities. She received a B.A. in Communications and Entrepreneurship and a Master's degree in Public Administration from Clark University.