What should we do when a person on the street asks us for money?

Last week a bulletin went out from a local company in Tulsa warning about the danger of “aggressive panhandlers” in downtown. The memo included a disturbing story about a woman who was assaulted when she refused someone who was asking her for money. The publication of this incident brought out other reports about panhandlers, or those who ask people for money, who have been verbally and at times physically intimidating. While my friends in the homeless community would say that panhandling (and especially aggressive panhandling) is not the normal activity of most people who live in the shelters or on the streets, it is a common problem in urban centers like downtown Tulsa. The memo’s advisement to members of the community to heighten their level of awareness is well-founded.

The memo was picked up by local news outlets and was also distributed by major and minor businesses in downtown as a warning to their employees. To read the bulletin and news story, click http://www.newson6.com/story/24792274/aggressive-downtown-tulsa-panhandler-gives-group-a-bad-name.

The assault that took place on a downtown employee is obviously very troubling and a real concern. I have recently been part of meetings and discussions between an appointed task force on homelessness from the Mayor’s office and those of us who work with the homeless on a regular basis. I have found these discussions to be a step in the right direction, although their fruitfulness remains to be seen. What has encouraged me is that both groups involved in these meetings — those from City Hall and those from service agencies — each consider the fair and respectful treatment of the homeless a prime concern.

Our church, and in particular our downtown Caring Center, encounters a significant amount of people who wander or  live on the streets on a daily basis. We take our location and position as a downtown church very seriously. We do our best to help keep downtown a safe and clean place for everyone, while also remaining committed to encouraging respect for all people and also preserving the dignity of the “down and out.” I have had the privilege of working on the front lines of this ministry for nearly 6 years, and I worked among the homeless for several years in DFW before moving to Tulsa. In the vein of heightening awareness, let me offer some helpful practices I have picked up along the way when dealing with those who ask for money:

Know the players. People who ask for money on a regular basis are good at what they do. They like to catch you when you are in a hurry (so that you might complete the transaction quickly) or leaving church (because you might be feeling extra generous).

Be alert. This is a good practice in any situation. Many of us are too easily distracted by our smart phones or simply fail to take in our surroundings as we move from place to place. Make it a practice to look ahead of you and all around you from time to time and be aware of what kind of people, circumstances, or situations are nearby.

Leave the disturbed person alone. By all means, if you encounter a person who appears to be having an “episode” related to mental illness, drugs, or alcohol, go the other way. Do not talk to the person, respond to the person, or antagonize them in any way. If it appears the person is yelling at you, they may not be. They may simply be in an altered state of mind and not even realize you are there. If they are addressing you — ignore them and walk away. Many times people who are having an “episode” are looking for a reaction. On the extremely rare occasion that you walk away from the person and they pursue you, do your best to move to a safe place or call for help.

Be friendly. Dare to look the person in the eye, greet them, and treat them with respect. I am confident you will find that most people — including those who are different than you — are very kind and respond well to being treated with respect.

Don’t assume everyone who asks you for help is lying. Many are honest people with genuine needs. Plus, isn’t it better to live life by giving people the benefit of the doubt as opposed to assuming the worst?

Know when to move on. If you have nothing to offer or no time to spare, be courteous and move on. There are also certain situations in which I almost never offer assistance. Here are some examples and the reasons why:

  • Someone who asks for loose change. This is a signal to me that there is not a substantial need. This person is collecting for something – and that something is probably harmful and not helpful.
  • Money for prescriptions or medicine. I hear this need a lot. The truth is, if the person has truly been given a prescription he or she likely has some sort of medical assistance with which to get that prescription filled. I have yet to meet a needy person, who has been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness or condition, who has not also been given access to the appropriate medicine.
  • Hotel rooms. This is a short-term fix; they will still need a place to stay tomorrow. The shelter systems at least offer case management to help people find more stable housing.
  • Tickets for Greyhound or other cross-country transportation. These tickets are often refundable and many people hop from one place to another on the bus by using a fake story. If they are truly trying to get “back home” for an emergency or to be with their family, they will likely be able to get help from their family or those at their destination.
  • Money to help a family member or person that is not there to be seen. As sad as it is, many people use fake (or even real) spouses, children, pets, elderly people, disabled people, etc., as a part of their story. If there truly is an emergency, they need to call 911 or seek real emergency assistance.

Know when and how to help. If you have time to engage the person and offer a real, practical help; do so. But plan to spend a little time talking to the person. Most of us try to either avoid, or get rid of, the person asking for help as quickly and easily as possible. The person asking for help is used to either being brushed off or bought off. Take some time to do it right.

If you help, giving money is usually a bad idea. I will always try to give someone tangible resources in lieu of money; for example:

  • Buying a meal instead of giving money for a meal.
  • Putting gas in someone’s car instead of giving money for gas.
  • Becoming educated about helpful organizations to which I can refer people who say they need help with rent, clothing, groceries, or travel assistance. Use the professionals — you are not this person’s only hope. Refer them to places where they can receive real, tangible, and sustainable assistance.
  • Purchase bus tokens to give someone as opposed to giving money for the bus.

The truth is, this is more than just a safety issue. Most of us really want to know how to help or if we should help when someone asks us for money or assistance. It feels like a no-win situation, doesn’t it? If you don’t give the person money, you might feel guilty. If you do give money, you are not confident that what you have given is going to good use. It could be the person who panhandles on the street, meets you in the church parking lot, or in the grocery store parking lot, or at QT, or maybe even outside your place of work. It could also be the person sitting by the off-ramp, holding a cardboard sign, sometimes accompanied by a sad-looking dog.

Above all else, remember this is NOT a no-win situation. Be alert, treat people with respect, and offer responsible assistance. In this way, everyone can help those in need in ways that do not exacerbate the problems but hopefully lead us towards solutions.

NOTE: This post was included in the Tulsa World. Read the article by clicking here.

4 thoughts on “What should we do when a person on the street asks us for money?

  1. Eric,

    Thanks for this new Doxology. Am writing a third book now and should be finished in two or three weeks. I look forward to reading your new Doxology at that time.

    Did you ever get a chance to read my Smokestack Jack book?


  2. I have worked in the mental health field for almost 10 years in one of the most violent cities in the US and I second everything you’ve shared! I’ve found that if I or my husband offer them a way to get the assistance they’re requesting specifically (food, gas, clothes) instead of money and they refuse, it is a really good indicator that it’s certainly not what they were planning on purchasing. As you say, it should never stop us from taking the time to show kindness and meet a need when we’re able. Thanks for sharing this useful info!

  3. One Wed. evening I left the FBC by the North entrance with my Wife and Granddaughter going to the north parking lot. As we walked down the alley a person approached out of the dark area that I believed had a switch blade or a Smith and Weston or both. It was too late to change direction so I stayed on the same path. At about 10 feet the guy said I’m a street person and I need something to eat. I emptied my pocket (a bill and some change). As he left he said “God Bless You Man” in a rather loud voice and kept repeating it until he was out of sight. I have been a professed Christian and church member for 61years and no one has ever said that to me. I live 100 miles from Tulsa and have often wanted to return to hear what else that person may have to say. The person looked like he did need a meal.

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