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Why I Never Give Pocket Money to the Homeless

Updated on January 6, 2013

As many could guess from the info by my profile pic, I'm from Chicago. Living there now, I've also lived less than an hour away from it for my entire life and visited here dozens of times before. One thing, aside from the main skyline, that hasn't changed dramatically, is the presence of the homeless.

Everywhere on State Street you can spot them. Most of them are black, wearing rags or at the most very worn and frayed clothing. It's a depressing thing to see, and I live right in the center of it all at this point in my life. They know I live in a campus area as well. They beg when I'm walking to the pizza place right by where I live. I almost do give them change. I'm tempted. But then, ironically, it's their stories that make me reverse that thought.

One homeless man sat right on the sidewalk outside the pizza place I frequented. He called to me as I walked past, very friendly, and I'm not even a tourist.

“Hey, young sir,” he said.

Since I'm a writer and I love to listen, I thought I'd hear this guy out, even if I'd pretty much set my mind on not giving him change. I didn't have any on me anyway. This is one of those reasons I hardly ever keep cash on me in the city. So, I walked closer to the guy and stood.

“Don't be afraid, man. I won't bite. Sit down.” He was inviting, not threatening, and I sat down beside him. “Listen.” His teeth were mostly missing. Thankfully, I couldn't smell his breath in the winter air. “I lost my job a year ago. And the reason I lost my teeth is, I got addicted to crack cocaine and crystal meth and I went to the shelter, but they wouldn't take me in for too long. I lost all motivation, man.” Then he turned to me even more, sincere. “What I want to know is, do you have any advice for me? What keeps you going?”

I genuinely (although surprised, thinking I'd had to have misheard him) thought he was asking me for advice. So I gave him some. “Well, I don't know. I keep my eyes on what I want out of life and I pursue it. I don't let the dream die, you know? You gotta keep--”

“Yeah, you have anything you could give me?”

His motives were clear. He was luring me in, like many of them do.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don't have any cash on me.”

He pointed sadly to the building down the street. “There's an ATM right there.”

This part of the conversation repeated itself. He kept assuring me that there was an ATM there and I knew there was, but I wasn't about to give this guy a twenty. I had my own finances to worry about. And he even admitted it was himself who put him in the situation. I apologized to him, still keeping a friendly demeanor, and walked away. Another day I ran into him on another sidewalk (he didn't remember me) I wound up giving the guy a CTA card with some leftover trips on it I didn't need. That was all he was going to get.

A lot of these guys try to guilt you into almost thinking it's your fault for their situation, like their being ignored is some evildoing. But in reality, these people are victims of both the economy and themselves. We're just coming out of a recession, and the influx of these homeless people comes in waves.

They have shelters. I'd feel fine donating to them if I had the cash, but I'm too busy worrying about making a living on my own with the fortunate privileges I have.

Tourists give in much easier to sympathy. They don't quite realize just how many of these homeless there are, and just how many of them are conning their way to getting donations or are simply going to support their drug or alcohol habits with the pity money.

They're everywhere by the Ogilvie train station. You can't go up to the doors there, front or side, without running into groups of them huddled outside. The only ones I consider giving money to are the sometimes talented musicians, the ones drumming away on bucket bottoms and still managing to sound rhythmic and adding flavor to the city. But so many of these homeless are deceptive. Many of them use religion (even if they really do believe) to get other Christians to give change out of finding a similarity with each other. Of course I also have a feeling many of these guys don't realize how many don't believe in God.

My roommate and I were walking down State one night casually, and a bum came up to us, started walking beside us. This one wanted to be a friend. He had a story about how his wife kicked him out of the house and he started talking with my roommate about football and baseball. The discussion went for about a block or so and then he popped the question. “Do you have any change?” When we declined, he left as if he'd never talked to us.

These guys will sometimes try to be your friend and appeal to the humanity inside you and make you believe they simply want to get to know you. These men (and sometimes women) can be some of the best con artists.

It's hard, but when in the city it's best to ignore the homeless when they beg. Sure, it may make you feel like you're giving them the same treatment everyone else is, but you may in fact be helping them to leave their addictions and try to make something of themselves so they will be seen. Feeding the Styrofoam cup will only be feeding what's keeping them homeless in the first place most of the time. And just think about the fact that you are where you are and how you got there. Sure, maybe you were born into a more privileged life, but compromising it for people who could make something of their lives and yet choose not to, is something you can't afford on a regular basis, even if they have families to support. There are shelters, and there's really no reason they shouldn't take anyone in. But they need to take the steps to better their lives once they find one.

Many of them don't even ask for change verbally, instead having their heads bowed with signs saying they have a family to support. One woman (whose ethnicity I couldn't say) had her head religiously facing the ground, a sign held out in front begging for generosity and food. A couple months later, I spotted another woman, black, mimicking the other woman's exact posture and holding a sign out front that said "19 and pregnant" and also begged for help. It was clear to me that begging and panhandling was a pity performance as much as it was begging. One sign I saw had it right: "I'm not a bad person. I've just made bad decisions." But it's never too late to reverse those decisions.

I did one time have a guy who came up to me (same sidewalk as the sitting man) and asked if I could buy him a burger at the street corner. I politely told him no, in fact I was on my way to the train station and had to catch...a train. So he asked for and I gave him a couple of cigarettes I had on me (which he took pretty angrily) and I went on my way. Yeah, maybe I fed into a different kind of addiction, but a burger would have been about eight bucks at that place. I didn't have that kind of money to spend on anyone's meal but my own, as even I didn't have a job, paid through a weekly allowance.

So, giving to the homeless is something I won't do outside of charity or shelter donations. If you know how many of these guys work, you'll never give them pocket change. I used to on occasion, but I know that many of them won't better themselves with any bronze, silver or green they receive. How do I know this? The same ones are always there, year-round, with some more buddies across the street. Unless they're intelligent enough, they'll go even lower.


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    • Jared Zane Kessie profile image

      Jared Zane Kessie 6 years ago from Richland, Washington

      Voted up, regardless of my opinion, it takes guts to put yourself out there.

      I think there is a clear distinction between homeless and panhandlers, they are not one in the same. I lived in Hawaii for several years where the homeless were rampant. What better place for the homeless to live? As a social worker I had an opportunity to be a part of a conference called Homeless by Choice. Part of the conference consisted of a panel of homeless and former homeless people who chose to be homeless. It was evident they weren't the panhandlers I would see in Honolulu.

      Then there are the panhandlers who actually stake out territory. Their local system of where they will beg is set and everyone abides by the unwritten rules. If someone goes against it, there is conflict. I had a chance to witness that near Santa Monica.

      I guess my point is that homeless does not automatically equal a beggar. I have heard (not witnessed) stories of folks who had homes but panhandled their income.

      Interesting article, Ben. I enjoyed it, as well as your other writings.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Ruffridyer, I edited my blog to reword to not contain "bum". I guess I have a very bitter and cynical view of most people, and the homeless are no exceptions. Thanks for commenting.

      And Wesman Todd Shaw, thanks for commenting and I understand if you disagree with me, but I have had some experience, living in the city for over a year and having visited here countless times before, I've encountered the homeless and talked to enough of them to know how manipulative some can be. I'm sure my opinions will alter as I get older, maybe not for the better, but I've never been homeless and am working hard at not going there.

    • Wesman Todd Shaw profile image

      Wesman Todd Shaw 6 years ago from Kaufman, Texas

      Voted down. I'll vote down again if it helps. I'm afraid that I was once opinionated without any real life experience to back up my garbage - so I hope that you'll get over it.

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 6 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      I notice you refer to homeless people as bums. That is not very helpful. I agree that giving a begger money may not be the best idea. In fact there are creeps who dress in rags and wear signs to get money instead of working.

      These people prey on the concerned citizen while those who really need some help don't get it.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Ah. Sorry to hear that. But it's good to know that you got out and made something of yourself.

    • danfresnourban profile image

      danfresnourban 6 years ago from Fresno, CA

      Thanks, actually he died the year after that trip, I was in jail fighting a strike offense that would end up sending me to prison, and serving as a catalyst for change in my own life. I regret that I was not able to attend Craig's funeral, and guilty that the reason I could not attend was because I was locked up again.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Really poignant story, danfresnourban, and I'm glad your friend turned out alright. Thanks for commenting and of course you make a good argument in that case. Of course I'm sorry the guy couldn't seem to get out of his problem, unless he did eventually.

    • danfresnourban profile image

      danfresnourban 6 years ago from Fresno, CA

      There is another kind of beggar, the reluctant kind. Before I was a lawyer, before I had a house in the city and one in the mountains, I struggled with addiction. I was in and out of jail, staying with friends here and there until I wore out my welcome and moved on.

      It was right as I found a new place to crash and do drugs, when I met this amazing guy. He had been a studio muscian with some great artists in the 70s, Eric Clapton and others. The 80s were not as good for him, his addiction to alcohol got the best of him. He was actually a wino on the real Skid Row in los angeles. That was where he learned the art of panhandling.

      We went on a trip out of town (he had dried out about six months before I met him, his parents bought him a car, and rented him an apartment, so we took his car) We ended up stranded, out of gas and he was out of alcohol. I had ran out of drugs, but I just went to sleep, he was such a bad alcoholic that he could die from withdrawals.

      We parked in the parking lot of a shopping center, he sat in the car, shaking and throwing up. At times, he would tremble so uncontrollably that I would tell, ok that is it, I am going to call for an ambulance, but he pleaded, please dont, just keep asking people for money. I kept asking and pretty soon I had enough for a bottle of Thunderbird.

      Within one minute of taking a huge swig off the bottle, my friend's color came back and his speech improved.

      That scared me, I decided that I had to get him back to his parents. On the way back, I didn't bother with panhandling, I just shoplifted liquor when began to get sick. I shared this experience because this hub is right, when you give money to beggars, you are probably feeding an addiction, but on that day, I was glad somebody did.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Princesswithapen, thanks for commenting and I certainly agree that if I had the money, I'd probably donate to charities and institutions.

      Sunshine, I agree it's pretty depressing to see how many people are down on their luck like that, but I have to constantly remind myself that many of them put themselves in that situation.

    • Sunshine625 profile image

      Linda Bilyeu 6 years ago from Orlando, FL

      Impressive hub Ben. Homeless people in Orlando tug at my heart, it's always a pitiful sight for me. I usually don't give them money. With our economy in a slump I've been noticing more wayward folks. I'd like to help each of them but it's not possible. They all have a unique tale to tell. Thank you for sharing.

    • princesswithapen profile image

      princesswithapen 6 years ago

      Great hub Ben. Even I believe that everyone should work, to earn money. But on the other hand, many people don't have a choice, or are forced to beg.

      Just like you said, I think charities and other recognized aid institutions are great to donate to. Thanks again for a good read.


    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks for commenting, and that's pretty interesting. Had no idea that was going on, then again I don't know much about the Philippines.

    • SilentReed profile image

      SilentReed 6 years ago from Philippines

      Beggars and pan handlers can be found around the world where poverty exist.Some due to their dire circumstance and others make it their profession.Here in the Philippines there is an ethnic tribe of professional beggars.They are the older generation of their tribe.With their weather beaten faces and tattooed outstretch hands they prey mostly on gullible tourist who are unaware that the old barefooted and hunch over woman in tribal dress own vast tracts of ancestral lands and that her children have gone on to colleges and have professional careers.In the early 60's and 70's they were numerous.We still see a few but the younger generation of their tribe have gone on to better careers and their tradition of professional begging have all but died out.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks for reading, Cathy I, and I appreciate your input. You bring up a good point, sure there are some who are genuinely in need and deserve empathy. If I had the money, sure I'd donate to a good cause, but to panhandlers on the street, I've got to be somewhere and I also don't want to discriminate between those I choose to give change to, as secularist10 mentioned.

    • Cathy I profile image

      Cathy I 6 years ago from New York

      I have mixed feelings here for as much as I understand and have experienced the same kind of panhandling and professional beggars, I cannot say I will never give, for among the whole lot of con artists there may be one person, who is genuinely in need. There are people who won't go to the shelters because of the situations that exist there.

      There are many people who have fallen on hard times due to foreclosure, recession, illness, etc. So when my heart tells me to give, I give. In the bible, thee is the story of the Beatitudes, and Jesus says words to the effect that 'I was hungry and you did not feed me...and we ask him when. He replied "whenever you did it to the least of my brothers, you did it to me". Typically, I make donations to places like The Bowery in New York, and the food pantry in my church, etc., but we have to have empathy for those in those situations for we never know what can happen in life that will take us from the pinnacles of success to the skid row of Chicago or elsewhere.

    • Ben Graves profile image

      Ben Graves 6 years ago from Chicago, IL

      Thanks for commenting, secularist10, and I absolutely agree with you. Many of these people need help and either need to be committed or taken care of, while many of the able-bodied, well-spoken need to learn that they can utilize their abilities in an earnest job.

    • secularist10 profile image

      secularist10 6 years ago from New York City

      I live in New York, and when I was on the subway recently there was a woman asking for money from the passengers. She would have garnered a little more sympathy if she wasn't holding the hand of a young girl (probably her daughter), who was (a) sucking on a lollipop without a care in the world, (b) wearing spiffy new sneakers and (c) quite portly! For some reason I didn't get the feeling she and her daughter were very desperate, lol.

      Logically, if you give some change to one person, you really have no reason to not give it every person who asks. Why did you choose this person over that person? And then if you start giving your change to everybody who asks, pretty soon you'll be the homeless one!

      And you're absolutely right--there are plenty of shelters and soup kitchens, if these people would just go to them. But for some reason many of them seem to think begging is more dignified than going to a shelter. Maybe it feels like they are using their own "skills" more.

      There are basically two types of beggars--first, those who were born into normal lives like the rest of us, and for whatever reason made poor decisions and have chosen to not seek work. The way I see it, if a person can stand on two feet and speak English, there is no reason why they can't be earning some money doing something.

      Second, there are those legitimately physically or (more commonly) mentally disabled. These are the people who should be taken care of by their family or by the system that we all pay money into. If someone freely chooses to not avail themselves of the goods and services that local, state and federal governments provide, there is little we can do for them.