How should I deal with panhandlers?


What is your philosophy on panhandlers and what would you recommend one do when the city you’re in encourages people to put their money in change machines (they look like parking meters) supposedly for the purpose of helping the poor instead of giving to panhandlers directly?



Dear John,

May we answer the second part of your question first? Personally, we think that governments are ill-equipped to disperse charity. We would much rather research and choose charities, preferably religious ones, knowing exactly what the philosophy of the charity is, exactly how funds are dispersed, and what percentage of donated money actually goes to the needy. So, we would pass by change machines set up by the city.

As to panhandlers themselves, our response is complicated. Compassion vies with rational thinking; responding to a human being vies with knowing that you may actually be harming people by giving.

Partially, it depends on location. When we are in Jerusalem, there is one old (very old) lady who approaches people. We have learned that she spends her entire day collecting money for struggling families and we not only respond to her but actively seek her out. That is worlds away from the young men we sometimes see in other cities whom we suspect are looking for money to buy drugs or booze.

When our children were young, we were more likely to give simply to model behavior for them. Now, we make more of a gut assessment of worthiness. In addition, when a city is at the point where the accumulation of panhandlers becomes menacing and a threat to peaceful daily life, there is an added reason not to encourage such behavior.

Furthermore, let’s keep in mind that the existing social service network imposes confiscatory rates of taxation upon you in order to give ‘entitlements’ to the poor. That people are still begging on the streets means that the extremely expensive system isn’t working and needs to be changed, not expanded.  Those who are begging usually need a different type of help than a handout to have any meaningful change in their life.

While we should not harden our hearts, we try to keep in mind that our goal is to help those who need a hand, not to emotionally pat ourselves on the back.  Doing that overwhelmingly means sending money in an organized way to those charities that we support. And, of course, keeping our eyes open for those who need a hand but are not asking for help, provides opportunity as well.

May you have much to give,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


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18 thoughts on “How should I deal with panhandlers?”

  1. Having been a resident at the Boise Rescue Mission from 12/25/2011 through 3/12/2012. I hope I can give some perspective to the conversation. I was there due to a series of very poor choices, that lead to a divorce, unemployment, and eventual homelessness. After a few weeks there and a strong dose of humility I found a job. The mission held my checks for a few months until I had saved enough for move in expenses. They helped me find an apartment and they gave me a voucher to their thrift shop for furniture and necessary house hold items.
    While I was there I saw that there are 3 basic types of people, those who want to work, those who are unable to work, weather temporarily or permanently, and those who are unwilling. The majority of those who were on the street corners holding signs were also on food stamps and were getting their meals at the mission. You could get free bus passes, they had computers to help put in applications, and staff who could help with resumes. I was repeatedly approached by people who offered to buy me food at the local grocery in exchange for cash. Mostly so they could buy cigarettes or alcohol of which there seemed to be an abundance.
    Today I still work for the same company, I have been promoted twice, and my salary has tripled. I like to think that I am a success story of what the mission is all about. In addition to the tithe I give my church I give a regular monthly gift to the Boise Rescue Mission. I really could never repay what they did for me. The truth is if you really want to help the homeless in your city give to the local mission. That is where most of them will sleep and get their meals. I really believe these organizations are doing the most good. We have also put care packages together with snacks and water and things to give to some of those on the street corners, but I don’t recommend giving cash.
    Everyone should be shown kindness and mercy, and I think it goes farthest when the folks in the ministry are properly equipped.

  2. For 11 years I ministered to the poor in San Francisco. I usually handed out food(sandwiches, juice,pop top cans of soup,etc) and hugs. I loved them, asked their names, shook their hands.Rarely did I give out money and only at the Lord’s direct and clear urging. Addicts will go hungry in order to feed their need for alcohol or drugs so giving food is a good option. And surprisingly but encouragingly some of the folks to whom I ministered, and some only once, found me later and their lives were transformed. They decided to call their families to get of the street or to get into a recovery program. The Lord in His kindness caused our paths to cross later so they could share with me about their restored lives.One by one we can make a difference.

  3. Great comments, yes we should check the financials of the institutions so you can tell if they are extracting your tax money and redistributing it check online its there. Further the pan handeler thing seems to be do what your heart says. My favorite Rabbi says your heart is actually in your brain, if you do or don’t give charity in this way,never feel obligated it seems. Personally I flip flop on this issue. The intention matters and it seems giving in secret also matters. In other words giving helps us feel like champeons inside and according to my latest Hebrew research, charity is the greatest ways to reduce anxiety in ones life.

    I also agree with not enabling the alcoholic, on the same token yes buy them food. It all depends we have pleanty of resources no one in America should be starving it seems relative to say Mexico where you see 8 year olds on the borderline juggling to make money for thier parents. Yes organized giving seems better if you check and know the financials. After you see some of them you might want to ask your government who gave them permission to distribute our taxes in this fashion while we we’re sleeping. At the end of the day honest giving in secret from the heart is best form, further it must be done for good living, thats my final solution.

  4. Before moving from Vancouver Washington to Dallas Texas, I would see beggars at the corner of every off ramp. Then at about 5 PM, they would then head down the road to a local parking lot where they would all pile into a $40K New SUV and drive off. If you asked them if they would like a job, they would reply we have a job. They consider begging a job. For that reason, I agree that you best help those in need by investigating charities that can weed out the scam artists. I believe that is part of being a good steward of our funds.

  5. Carl from South Carolina

    Howdy my Rabbi-I am notorious for picking up Hitchhikers and HELPING street people(I pray first, and sometimes get the message ‘Keep on rolling’ and never had a bad one yet. With street people I offer them temp. employment- pick up the parking lot and then pay them. Some do and get paid, those who won’t, it is their choice……

  6. I feel that if a druggy or alcoholic doesn’t get a fix, they could get very ill and possibly die. Hashem obviously put people in front of me to ask for a reason. I can’t know if they really need food…drugs or whatever….so to be giving like Hashem…I give a little to all I encounter. I also converse with them and sometimes these people are really in need. Lastly…I’ve then done my part and it is in their hands.

    1. Bonnie, you sound like a lovely person. There is another side, however. As many cities found out after they made vagrants welcome, when you give something at a good price (for free) more people want it. Many of these people would be better off if forced to go to a shelter, Salvation Army etc. because they didn’t manage on the street. There, they could be better served. Also, most people’s resources are limited. If you choose to give your charity on the street, that means you don’t have that money available to give to a group that might have more of a long-term solution. It’s a difficult issue and your heart is in the right place, but there is a compassionate argument for doing it differently. Thanks for chiming in.

  7. My grandfather told my father who told me: when someone begs for money “to buy a cup of coffee” , buy him the coffee instead of giving him money. And if you have time, and sufficient funds, buy him a meal. For the same reasons you mention: the money may be used to buy drugs or other non necessities. For this reason I keep X-ray bottles of water and snack items in my car. If the grocery store is having a sale, I buy extra and put them in my car. If I am purging the pantry of canned goods I’m not using, I throw them in a bag destined for the homeless shelter I donate to regularly. If I see someone with a sign and a demeanor that indicates they may be hungry, I give them some of these items. I’ve even offered to share something from my lunch ( knowing I can always buy more) if I havent restocked my donation basket. 95% of the time the “beggar” is grateful, oftentimes devouring the food as I drive away. Since I travel the same routes and see the same people with their hand out every week or two, anyone who seemed ungrateful of these food donations get nothing further from me.

      1. I service customers all over So. California. I always have bottles of water and easy to eat granola bars to hand out. They love them.

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