The first time I encountered people on the street asking for money, I was overwhelmed by a desire to help. I was 14 years old and with my family on vacation in Mexico. At the market, a wistful girl wearing torn clothes approached me with her little hand held out and said, “Tengo hambre.” (“I am hungry.”)
Without a thought, I pulled out my purse and gave her a couple of coins. Within seconds, I was surrounded by a swirling group of children, all with cupped hands, worn clothing, and pleading voices. By the time my younger but far more practical sister and brother got to me, I had given away every peso I had and was almost ready to hand over our father’s expensive camera, because everything I had just didn’t seem like enough.
Later, I learned that most of this money didn’t go to feed these children but to line the pockets of adults who had told them to be there. Over fifty years later, even though I have had countless of encounters with begging children and panhandling men and women, I still feel the pull of compassion when someone who seems to be in need calls out to me and asks for “a little spare change.”
During a workshop on stopping street harassment in San Francisco, a woman described how she was carrying 5 one-dollar bills in a separate pocket so she could be charitable and give $1 if a panhandler approached her. The problem was that, instead of gratefully accepting her $1, each time this happened, the panhandler would start crowding close to her, begging her to give him the other four dollars so he could “get a square meal.” This was especially upsetting because she was walking in her neighborhood with her three young children, one a baby in a stroller.
When she refused to give more money, her son would say sadly, “But the man is hungry!” This mother wanted to know how to be charitable and set a good example for her children without being harassed.
Here are six strategies we teach our Teenpower and Fullpower students for making wise choices when approached by someone who is asking for money:
1) Make being kind a conscious decision rather than an automatic habit. I am going to assume that you are a caring person and already know how to be kind. The problem is that automatically doing what someone asks can be unsafe and might lead to a result that you don’t want. Think first about where you are, whether there are others close by, and how this person is behaving. Err on the side of safety rather than automatically helping. Remember that you do not owe someone your money or your time. You can choose whether and how to help.
2) Be careful about giving up your personal space. Someone who wants to harm you might try to trick you into lowering your guard by asking you for money, directions, or other help. Even if it is just a penny, when you let someone get close enough to you to give money or stop to listen to their pitch, you are giving up your personal space. When possible, move so that you can stay out of reach rather than letting someone get close to you. If your moving away is not possible and someone is trying to crowd uncomfortably close to you, put your hands up with your palms facing out like a wall between you and say firmly, “Stop! That’s too close. Please step back.”
3) Decide ahead of time how you want your money to be used. No matter how convincing someone’s story is, don’t believe everything that this person tells you. Did you know that some panhandlers joke with each other about people who give them money being “easy marks”? The reality is that most panhandlers use your spare change to buy cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs. Is this okay with you? If not, use your charitable dollars to support community programs that help people who are homeless or hungry.
4) Leave with a respectful, aware attitude. Pretending that someone is not there can cause problems by making you look like a potential victim. Acting annoyed can cause a confrontation. Usually the safest choice is to keep walking briskly, veering out of reach if someone is close, while glancing towards the person so he or she can see that you are paying attention. You can even wave and say, “Sorry, no!” as you keep going.
5) Give age-appropriate explanations to children. We want to model for children acting respectful to people with problems while maintaining personal boundaries. Long ago, when my daughter was three years old, I bought her a huge sugar cookie. As we sat on the bench outside the bakery, a woman, who looked as if she had had a rough life and was panhandling across the street, walked over to us. She bent down and said to my child, “That cookie looks so delicious. Will you give me a bite?”
My daughter, who was learning to share, looked at me uncertainly. “Sorry, no!” I told the woman firmly.
“You are lucky, “ the woman said, hovering close to us, “to have such a beautiful child. My kids got taken away.”
“Yes, I am lucky, “ I agreed warmly, “and I’m sorry about your kids. I hope you have a good day. “ As I said this, I picked up my little girl and walked back into the bakery, not wanting her to hear any more.
“What did she mean about her kids?” my daughter, who had noticed everything, asked worriedly. “And why didn’t you let her have some of my cookie when she wanted it so much?”
“She has problems that are so big that she can’t take care of her kids,” I explained matter-of-factly. “Instead, other people will take care of her kids until she gets better. And we don’t share our cookies with people we don’t know well.”
With older children, you can explain that people who ask for money on the street are strangers, and we need to follow our stranger safety rules even if we feel sad that they have problems. We can encourage kids to be charitable by gathering cans to donate to food banks, giving toys to groups serving homeless kids, or volunteering with a community program.
6) Explore different ways of showing compassion. If you wish to do so and are in a safe place, acknowledging someone who is asking for help can be a powerful choice even if you don’t give money.
One of my friends will stop to ask the name of panhandlers and then say, “_______, I can’t give you money but I wish you well. I hope you will find the help you need.”
My sister once paused to say to a pregnant woman who was asking for money, “I see you are pregnant, and I wish great blessings on you and your baby.”
Once, a very humble, very respectful older man was sitting on the sidewalk with a sign saying he was hungry as I went into a store. On the way out, I handed the man a huge fragrant orange that I’d just bought. He thanked me enthusiastically. It wasn’t much, but the light from his smile brightened my whole day.