I believe in giving money to panhandlers. Many people argue that giving to an organized charity is a better use of money. But to me, charity is not just about getting the best return on investment. It is also about human connection, and the power of a moment of grace to change a life.
Years ago, after my sister and I gave some change to a man wandering a parking lot with a gas can, a bystander scolded us: “That guy is just working a racket,” he said. “You girls should save your money.” My sister quickly replied, “It’s none of our business what he does with that money. It’s my decision to be generous, and it’s his decision whether he’s honest.” She articulated exactly why I give to panhandlers without worrying too much about what the recipient will do with my money. She gave me the words that I would use from then on, whenever someone challenged my decision to hand over some pocket change.
I’m willing to gamble with my spare change. Maybe that panhandler will use it for alcohol, or maybe they really could get a job, but then again, maybe they haven’t eaten yet that day.
When I have an opportunity to give to someone who genuinely appears to be in need, I make a split-second moral decision. I feel this most acutely when I meet a panhandler as I walk out of a grocery store. If I choose to ignore someone who is clearly much worse off than I, someone dirty, disheveled, homeless—yes, perhaps even drunk—I add to the misery in the world.
My soul is diminished just a little bit as I walk past, pushing my cart full of food.
I have given money for years in the hope and faith that at least some of it will be well spent. But it wasn’t until recently that I had any evidence to support this hope.
Walking into a Chinese grocery in Seattle’s international district, my boyfriend and I passed a very dirty, thin young man standing by the door. “Spare change?” he mumbled without looking up, as people walked quickly past. On our way out, I handed him our change, a little over a dollar. A grateful smile lit up his face. Not ten minutes later, I saw the young panhandler pass us. “Look! It’s that guy from the grocery store!” We turned to watch him scuttle through the crowd, clutching a clear plastic bag with four Asian pears in it. “He used my money to buy fruit!” I couldn’t stop smiling.
Now, I don’t give money to every sign-holder or panhandler I see. But I do see them. I see their desperation, and I choose to help not because my spare change will solve their problems, but because they are human and in need, and they are right in front of me. They may not spend my money wisely. But at least they should have that choice, just like I do.
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