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To Give or Not To Give money to the homeless. That’s not really the question.

A few month’s ago we celebrated my brother’s 40th birthday.  I never in a million years thought we would celebrate that day.  I didn’t think he’d be alive.

My brother is an alcoholic and an addict.  He has a long history of drug and, more specifically, alcohol abuse.  And just for the record, I have his permission to talk about this stuff.

He spent a few different periods of his life living on the streets of Salt Lake City.  He was homeless.  He was making choices that lead to this situation.  We, his family, couldn’t force him to choose otherwise.  And because of those choices, he was not allowed to live with any of us.  It was awful.  For everyone involved.  I won’t go into details right now because that’s not really the point for writing this.

He spent some of the time sleeping at the Road Home.  Some of the time he slept on people’s couches.  “Friends”, I guess.  Sometimes he was at the VOA (Volunteers of America).  Other times he slept in fields, the mountains, the side of the road.  Wherever he passed out sometimes.

 

And during many of those periods, he panhandled for money.  At grocery stores, on the streets, at trax, in parking lots.

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 Our family got pretty good at not giving him money.  Because we knew exactly what he’d use it for. And because we were doing all that “tough love” stuff in hopes it would compel him to make better life choices.  That whole tough love thing was NOT easy for our family.  It was horrific, really.

So when he asked for money on the streets, he was the stereotypical person who begged for money, then turned right around and used that money to buy drugs and alcohol.  He WAS the person people don’t want to give money to because they assume you’ll use it to drink or get high.

But.  He also used that money to eat.  And buy socks.  And a coat.  And a backpack to hold his few meager belongings.  And other seemingly small things.  But those things are what kept him alive.  Other people kept my brother alive when we couldn’t.  We didn’t even know if keeping him alive was the right goal.  Sounds awful to even say that, but it’s the truth.  Anyone who has dealt with addiction on a personal level knows exactly what I’m talking about.  It’s one of the most hopeless situations a person and family can be in.

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During one of our many conversations about my brother’s life on the streets, he said to me “The worst part about asking people for money is they acted like you didn’t even exist.  They acted like they couldn’t even hear you.  And they looked right past you.  Like I wasn’t even there.  That was the worst part.  It wasn’t about them giving me money or not.  It was about them treating me like a worthless piece of shit.”  (There may or may not have been some more expletives in that statement that I chose to leave out.)

 

I thought a lot about that.  And started feeling pretty bad because I knew I was guilty of that very thing. Sometimes acting like those people asking for money weren’t even there.  Walking right past them without looking at them.  Hurrying past them and ignoring they’d even said anything to me.  It was awkward for me sometimes.  To deal with those people.  To not give them money because I assumed I knew what they’d use it for.  And I didn’t want to contribute to their “problem”.  (Truth is, they’ll find the money somewhere, whether you give it to them or not–addicts are very resourceful when they have to be)

And then it struck me.  It’s NOT about whether I give them money or not.  Give them money, don’t give them money.  I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong.  But I could (and should) ALWAYS treat them like a human being.  A person with a soul whose worth is as great as mine.  Instead of asking myself, “should I give them money?” I ask myself “how should I treat this person?”

My brother was hit by a car after stumbling into the road while drunk.  He was life-flighted (not his first time on a life-flight) and in the ICU for 3 weeks, the hospital for 5 weeks.  (You can read the blog we kept while he was in the hospital right here).  He has now been sober for roughly 2 years.  After nearly 20 years of hard core alcohol and drug abuse, he is sober (for various reasons, including a traumatic brain injury).  And people who gave him money, and treated him like a soul of worth, and took care of him at the VOA and Salvation Army, and sheltered him at the Road Home helped keep him alive.

His life is not all sunshine and roses even now that he’s sober.  20 years of uncontrollable alcohol abuse doesn’t just disappear.  And he can still be a complete pain in the ass.  But he’s alive.  And our family wasn’t the only ones who helped keep him alive (though we fought tooth and nail to do that for him).

And I am grateful for that.  Because he’s my brother.  And he’s my parents son.  And he has a good heart.  And he’s taught me more about human compassion and being non-judgmental, and seeing the value and worth in every human soul, than any other person on this earth.

So now when I see someone asking for money on the side of the road, or at a stoplight, or the freeway offramp, or by temple square downtown I always try to remember that is someone’s brother, sister, mother, father, aunt, uncle, grandma, niece, nephew, son, or daughter.  Someone cares about that person.  Someone’s world is shattered because of the choices that person made.  Someone, somewhere, loves that person and wishes with all their heart that person wasn’t out begging for money.  And God loves that person JUST AS MUCH as he loves me.

 

“I am confident because I believe that I am a child of God.  I am humble because I believe that everyone else is too.”  Glennon Doyle Melton

 

And so I try to say hello to them.  And I make eye contact.  And I tell them I hope they have a good day.  And sometimes I give them money.  And sometimes I don’t.  But I always try to make them feel like I care they exist in this world.  I SEE them.  And I HEAR them.

I am grateful for the people who did that for my brother.  Grateful for people who reached out to him.  Who showed him compassion.  Who didn’t judge him.  And for the people who gave him money.  I’m grateful for them too.

It’s not about giving or not giving money.  It’s about seeing every human being the way God sees them.  And treating them accordingly.

 

{Side note.  I am FULLY aware that some panhandlers do it as a “business”.  And some panhandlers are rude and entitled and not very kind people.  There is a WIDE variety of reasons people are asking for money on the street.  I hope we can all be sensitive to those many and varied reasons.  And not lump them all into one pool of people.  And be grateful we’re not the ones asking for the money.  And I want to emphasize I’m not professing whether or not people should give money.  More than anything, I wrote this post for my kids.  To help show them the need for human compassion and love.  I am in NO WAY trying to start a debate on giving money to panhandlers.  Just so we’re clear on that before people light me up in the comment section}

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  • I really learned a lot from your perspective. Thank you so much for sharing!ReplyCancel

    • Thanks for commenting Annie! Hoping this post will at least give people a different perspective. 🙂ReplyCancel

  • Craig and I sometimes volunteer at St. Vincent’s preparing meals for the homeless. We have been told that they serve about 700 people twice a day. Every time we go we work with homeless individuals or we encounter large lines outside of the mission. Many are young, some are aged, some have children, some have mental issues, some are runaways, some are victims of abuse, Some even have jobs but are unable to pay rent. There are so.many reasons a person becomes homeless. We aren’t the ones to judge their circumstances. When I’m serving there I always think, “that could be me. I could be the person on the street.” I love the scripture in Matthew 25 -“in as much as ye have done it unto the least of these …..ye have done it unto me”. You are right, it’s not about the money, it’s about seeing each individual as Christ sees him or her. Thanks for your thoughtful and very loving post.ReplyCancel

    • I knew the two of you did this sometimes. I’ve served meals downtown before too and it usually just makes me feel awful. The truth is, it could be ANY of us. Truly, it could. So for me it has nothing to do with money and everything to do with human compassion and love.ReplyCancel

  • Linds, I just love you! Seriously! I love this! Its perfect. I think we can all be better at loving others and being truly christlike!
    ReplyCancel

  • I was homeless — cashless — last year. I was homeless because I have a big mouth and a little, caveman brain and after 38 years of working I threatened my boss and lost my job and all my accrued benefits. I held a sign that read, “I *want* to work.” It didn’t get me work and it almost got me arrested. I know how hard it is to sleep in a ditch. I wouldn’t wish homelessness on my worst enemy — not even my boss. I’ve been profoundly changed by that experience and the biggest change was realizing that when I give money to someone, that money is out of my hands, literally. It is not my responsibility to worry about — or dictate — how it gets spent. I’ve done my part. The rest is up to karma and God.ReplyCancel

    • Oh wow!!! Thanks for telling me that Kelly. That’s the perfect example of not clumping all homeless people into one general pool of addicts and alcoholics. People are homeless for so many different reasons. And I love that you said once you give the money, it’s not up to you anymore. Perfectly said. May I ask how you’re doing now? I’m assuming you aren’t homeless anymore. And for that I will give you huge respect for rebuilding your life!!! Not an easy thing to do.ReplyCancel

  • SuziQ

    Lindsay,

    I much appreciated you perspective on the homeless. I worked at DWS and issued food stamps (aka SNAP) and medical for the last 20+ years. I struggled at first to be hard or soft when interviewing for eligibility. I decided to be what was needed based on who I was talking to but always respectful. Humans are damaged goods, some more than others. I keep in mind there are 2 great teachers, one is pain and the other is Jesus Christ and the principles he taught. I held to my belief that I would give a person no reason to continue to hurt themselves or others, if they loved or hated, it was on them, not me. I didn’t want to make a hard life harder by being rude or condescending. I wished each person “The Best and to have Good Day” and meant it.

    Working with government policies and extremely dysfunctional people (that includes much more than the homeless such as those families {especially single women that continue to have children they can’t afford, men that create a child but don’t stay and take responsibility, etc) takes its toll. I experienced those that are truly needy and those that are just down right lazy cheaters. I discovered all I can do is be the best I can be which includes finding balance in an unbalanced world. It seems balance is a fleeting moment between shifting between being hard and soft no matter the issue. In Hebrew, the meaning of love actually means doing the right thing. Oh so difficult to achieve sometimes!

    When I encounter a person begging, I direct them to the food stamp program or call 211 for other resources (food bank, shelters, etc). I prefer to give from my own resources to those that I know really need it and are not “working the system”. I appreciate your family’s struggle and honor that you took the high road, no matter how difficult. Sentimentality can take over but it’s not a godly quality and can feed the problem to greater heights. Compassion and love, yes, but self-help must be in the mix as well, people have to be willing to change. There in lies the challenge.

    Thank you for writing such a poignant and honest article about your sweet brother. We all seek to be loved but not all have a will to live. Humans are complex yet all the same. We have an enemy that provides the poison to destroy the human race and manages to get many to take the poison. Such a sad situation for those that don’t see their value and worth and believe they are unlovable.

    I, too, learned there are some really awesome people in the world, thank God for them! You are a blessing by choosing to take a painful situation and turn it into something good. May you continue to be blessed and “Have a Good Day!”

    All the Best!

    S

    ” Wisdom is found on the lips of the discerning person.” Proverbs 10:13ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Suzie! Wow. Thank you for such an honest and thoughtful response. The situations of people is obviously so much more complex and there are so many factors. I just hope people can be a little less judgmental and a little more aware that the people they see on the street are PEOPLE and deserve to be treated as people.
      Bless you for working with people and trying to help those who are seeking help for the right reasons!
      I really appreciate you taking time to comment and be here.ReplyCancel

  • LD

    I just stumbled across your blog today & am catching up. I’m in recovery from alcohol, crack cocaine & heroin. I just wanted to share something.
    Addicts are probably the most resourceful people on the planet. We have to do some pretty intense things to survive.
    Things like selling food stamps for drugs. Things like filling our dealer’s gas tanks with the credit card that’s either ours, or stolen, in exchange for drugs at half value (meaning $50 of gas gets you $25 of drugs). Things like standing outside McDonald’s with the gift card some kind soul gave us so that we’d eat, but then selling that $10 gift card to the teenage kid walking in for $5, because on that day we are in such severe withdrawal from heroin we can’t keep food down anyway, and we need to scrape together some cash to get even a tiny bit of the heroin that isn’t even getting us high at that point..it’s just enough to stop the withdrawal sickness. Tide detergent & baby formula can be traded for drugs. My point is- when you give something…ANYTHING to a using addict, you never know what will happen. Sometimes we do buy food with the gift cards, we use the money for something legit. Sometimes we don’t. But I pray that doesn’t prevent people from still trying to help. Because when we ARE ready for recovery, those kind acts can save our lives. And those who aren’t ready, well maybe that kind act will help keep them alive until they are ready.ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Hi Laura. I’m going to e-mail you directly. But it made me smile when you said addicts are the most resourceful people on the planet. My brother seriously says that all the time. And I heard it all the time in the AA meetings I went to with him. 🙂 I’ll be e-mailing you.ReplyCancel

  • Love this post. I love having the perspective of a family member to a homeless person. Thank you so much. This past Christmas season, I wrote a post about what my husband and I learned through our personal encounter with a homeless man who became our friend, and your post really grabbed my heart.

    https://kmrosenow.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/mankind-is-our-business-homelessness-and-divine-encounters/ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Thanks so much Kathy! I’ll have to check out your post. My heart aches for homeless people regardless of why they became homeless. So much hurt in that community.ReplyCancel

  • Linda

    My daughter and I drive by a man who is homeless almost everyday. We both feel like giving a homeless person money is probably not the right answer, but we struggled seeing this man day in and day out. So this Christmas my daughter gave him one of her warm farm coats. “Bless you” He said. I had an extra warm shirt that wasn’t going to fit a son-in-law and on my way to return it there he was so I stopped and handed it to him… Bless you” he said. So not everyday and not every week but often we stop with a meal. A warm drink. We try to keep it high in protein and calories. He has taught us humility and we bless him.ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Linda,
      This is awesome! Good for you guys. I don’t think it matters what we give. Just THAT we give. Be it money, material things, or eye contact and a hello. Giving shows that we care in whatever way we do it.ReplyCancel

  • Cindi

    This was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing this. I’m very humbled (and feeling a bit ashamed of myself) by this completely “new-to-me” perspective, and I hope that I can always remember this. 🙂ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Cindi,
      Don’t be ashamed. It’s a hard situation. And if I’m being totally honest, sometimes I still avoid. But I do try to make a better effort and if nothing else just make eye contact and say hello. People in general (all of us) just want to be SEEN, and heard, and loved. I think that’s what we all ache for most. Whether we’re addicts or not. We ALL need and crave love.ReplyCancel

  • penni brown

    Coming to the party way late, but if you still read the comments…

    Being bullied, neglected, worse yet -ignored, as a kid taught me to never do those things as an adult. I “tried” to be helpful, but struggled with “You’re just supporting their habit.” Yet things still tugged at my heart so I tried to listen to the Spirit and gave when I felt it was right… Until two things happened.

    The first was I really read Mosiah 4 in the Book of Mormon, I mean read it and studied it, prayed over it, read it again until it sunk into me.

    The second was when I saw a dead man in a planter at a fast food drive thru. Long story short, he was a “regular”. The folks at the fast food place knew him. So when they saw him that morning, “sleeping” askew in the dirt, they just assumed he was drunk or high, and ignored him as per usual. I could tell he wasn’t “ok” because the position of his body, no one, even fully loaded, sleeps like that. So I questioned the management and asked them to send for help, they refused, “not our problem or responsibility”.

    So I called. When the paramedics arrived they found him, knew him by name, and called for the coroner. It struck me that someone’s son, brother, maybe dad?, was dead in a planter, alone, ignored, and would have stayed there until he began to rot had I or someone else got involved with “a homeless drug addict.” I cried like he was my own. I have never forgotten that.

    What else I never forget is that I too have unbreakable habits, addictions if you prefer, that I struggle to break every day. Mine aren’t “illegal”, but they are just as dangerous to my soul. God shows me patience and mercy and gives me what I need every day no matter how I receive it or how I will use His blessings. Christ forgives me daily, shouldn’t I forgive as well?

    According to the words in Mosiah 4, we are not to judge whether they have brought their situation upon them self, if they need it or want it, we are to help those who have the courage to ask and also those who do not have the strength to even know they need help.

    God notices them; and us. Let us do all we can to assure the forgotten, the scared, the addicts and derelicts, the rejected, that our Elder Brother was also those things *for us*, and through Him, we are fed and supported daily.ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Penni,
      Never late to the party. I read ALL comments on posts new or old.
      The story about the man broke my heart. That literally could have been my brother.
      I’m right with you on Mosiah 4. It says to give without judgment. Doesn’t mean we have to give money. Could just mean we give love. But regardless, our whole purpose in life (in my opinion) is to learn to LOVE and take care of each other.
      Says a lot about you that you noticed something was wrong with him and that you took action to call paramedics. I wonder what his story was. Why he drank or did drugs to mask his pain. Where did the pain come from and why?

      I really appreciate you taking time to comment and for your heart. Everyone has their vices. Everyone has their versions of addictions. Alcohol and drugs are just harder to hide and much more destructive publicly.ReplyCancel

    • Curtistine

      To me, the greatest part of your post was your understanding that we all have addictions and are all in need. My weaknesses are addressed by the strength of others therefore I am to lend my strengths to those who need them. God bless you for reflecting the insight He has given you.ReplyCancel

      • ltross17

        Thanks so much Curtistine. I appreciate you reading it and taking the time to comment!ReplyCancel

  • Stacy

    i previously struggled with the issue of whether or not to give money, until one Sunday our pastor mentioned it and said “just give them the money” and explained why he was saying that, I don’t even recall what he said but it prompted me to think about it. I realized that in the end it doesn’t bother me even if that person decides to drink it, smoke it or whatever. I mean yes, I’d like for them to find peace outside of the addiction, but honestly I don’t know their story and if somehow their personal history is so unbearable they just want a few hours away from it who am I to say they can’t spend it that way. I have friends & family in recovery, I’ve heard a few intense stories & think no wonder they wanted to escape; I have my own vices, as another person wrote above. Thanks for writing this!ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Stacy,
      I personally agree with your pastor. I know some people will disagree, and I’m totally fine with that. My point is to just treat them like people. Look them in the eyes. Be courteous. Say hello. Acknowledge that they exist. If you have money and are willing, give it to them. If you don’t, still be kind like you would any other person. It’s SO rude to act like you didn’t even hear them and just keep walking.ReplyCancel

    • Curtistine

      Absolutely! I learned a long time ago that God requires us to be faithful, not successful. Any success is credited to Him and any participation that He allowed for me is lagniappe (bonus)!ReplyCancel

  • staki

    Today, I smiled at a homeless man, I asked if was warm enough and able to keep dry. He smiled and said his name was Jeffrey and he thanked me for asking. I didn’t have anything to give but a smile and a few kind words. And he thanked me.ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Staki,
      I honestly think that smile does SO much more than giving them anything material. Just knowing someone cares is huge for ALL of us.ReplyCancel

  • Jamie

    I just found you blog today. I recently passed the one-year anniversary of my sisters death. She was 50. She fought drug and alcohol abuse for 35 years. It is good know there is someone with a family who understands and feels and sees the situation in very different ways. That’s us. I still question “did I do the right thing” when it came to helping and being there for my addicted sister. You’re right – there is no right thing to do. You do the best you can with where you are at that specific time and space.

    Thanks for sharing your story. I feel like I have found a long lost friend who on the same walking path as me. I appreciate you being here. I can’t wait to read more.

    <3 🙂 <3ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Jamie,
      So sorry to hear about your sister. So many stories like hers. Addiction is brutal and unforgiving. I think it would be helpful if more families were able to talk about it. Get rid of some of the shame associated with it. There’s definitely a bond between addict families. We “get it”. It’s a sisterhood/brotherhood for sure. Sadly the outcome with addicts is rarely good. But oh we learn SOOOOO much from them and the experience as a whole.
      I truly hope your family is able to find peace and healing.ReplyCancel

  • Sarah

    Thank you for the powerful perspective – and the awareness that treating everyone with basic human respect is the most important part of any interaction.ReplyCancel

  • Instead of money I carry food and hygiene items to give to the homeless. That way they can’t spend the money on alcohol or drugs but now have the necessities. 🙂ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      Hailey,
      I keep meaning to do that and just haven’t yet. But it’s a great idea!ReplyCancel

  • Judith Wolford

    Hear, Hear! Giving someone money and saying, “but don’t buy booze!” is no longer a gift, or a donation. It becomes something other than charity. Maybe what that person needs at that particular moment in time is a good drink. I give for me – not for them. I don’t attach any obligation to it – it’s a gift, no strings.ReplyCancel

  • Jackie

    I don’t get out much after dark these days. I try to be cautious and help when i can. If i have a few dollars on me and a total stranger ask me for money, yes i do give them money. I didn’t have a so called hang up on what they chose to do with the few dollars as some people do. It could be drugs or alcohol, i needed to give, it was sort of a calling for me in some strange way. I came from a wonderful family of brothers and sisters, yet we never had enough to eat or enough clothes to wear. By definition we were poor, my father wasn’t the best provider, my mother had 7 children to try and keep from starving and freezing in cold weather or fed and cool in the summer weather. Too many children to take care of and she didn’t have clothes to work out in public either. Mother was a stay at home Mother that had more to do than most people that worked. As children, honestly we thought everyone lived the way we did. No one was rich, yet they had things we didn’t have and they shared, it was a kinder world then. For what ever reason we were young and it didn’t matter so much to us then. I will always believe our Mother was the reason we felt loved, cared for, clean and we all turned out to be good people with nice spouses, kids and homes. As i look back now, of course i know how poor we were. Whether i made good choices to give a little money freely to people on the streets, no matter their circumstances, i had to give to them what i could afford after i became an adult and worked. Never had spending money as a child to give to anyone. I was blessed with a wonderful husband that worked and i worked also. There were hard times in the mid 60’s for us just getting started our life together.

    My point of giving to strangers in need of a few dollars, as i said above was my way of not knowing what kind of life they may have had, maybe they were broken in spirit or had no family. I don’t know and i never asked them. It was something in my heart that told me to give and i gave to anyone that ask me for money, not tons of money. I didn’t have tons of money. If it was only a dollar in my pocket or pocket book, i gave it to them. I still had my checkbook to buy the things i needed. I felt blessed that i was able to do that. Please don’t by any means am i asking for a pat on the back, nor am i an Angel. I just always felt the need to give and i would thank God each time i was able to help one person. As long as i could give something to the strangers in need of whatever they bought with the money was their choice. If it was drugs or alcohol, at least they had something they needed at that time and it helped me to be a better person by giving and i know who i am and i will always be greatful i made the choices i made even if it was only pocket change sometimes. “If i helped one person, i might have saved one person”.ReplyCancel

  • Angel

    I love your blog you have awesome points and I have something to add… Instead of money why not bring them food or a jacket that way you know that the money wasn’t spent on drugs…. My fiancé and I were at a hot dog place and man stopped us at the door asking for money to eat… Instead of giving him money we bought him food and the man sat down and ate it, then we didn’t wonder if he was going to do something to hurt himself with the money.
    Just a thought:)ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      That’s so awesome you offered to feed him. It’s honestly not for me to say what people do and don’t do for others who are asking for help. I just hope we can all take time to acknowledge these people are PEOPLE with hearts and feelings and the need to be seen just like anyone else. Sounds like you already totally get that!!ReplyCancel

  • Birdnscrap

    My Rabbi taught me that even if 9 out of ten people you give money to use it to buy drugs or alcohol, the one you help will so appreciate it. in the Talmud it says, “if you save one life, it is as if you save the whole world.” Good wisdom.
    And I agree with treating homeless people (those who seem safe to talk to) like they are human! I often ask them how they are doing. I almost always give them a little money and say I hope they will buy a good meal with it. I have worked in soup kitchens and emergency rooms, so met many homeless folks. I work with people when have sustained disabilities at their work, leading them to become disabled, depressed, addicted to pain meds, lose their homes, marriages….
    Be grateful everyone that you weren’t born with the genetic tendency to addiction and didn’t have the adversity or trauma that others have faced. Or that could be you in the street.ReplyCancel

    • ltross17

      We’re all closer to homelessness and some sort of addiction than we even know. So much compassion for people who suffer from mental illness, addiction, homelessness…..breaks my heart.ReplyCancel

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