How Do You Respond to People Asking for a Handout?

I live in a city with a rather large number of homeless people, and it’s inevitable that you will be approached by someone asking for a handout, often in a parking lot in my experience. Several years ago in a church Sunday school class, the teacher/leader asked us the question in the title of this post. He asked us to share stories of panhandlers that we had encountered. As the stories were told, what emerged was that no one had a plan–including the teacher! What usually happened was that the person being asked for money would feel guilty and thus hand over some money. The other typical response was to ignore the panhandler.

Early on in our marriage, my wife and I talked over what we would do when encountering people requesting a handout and came to some decisions. I’ll relate some encounters that we’ve had which should illustrate those decisions, at least for the most part. The first two happened in other cities, while the others happened in ours.

  • My wife and I encounter a poor-looking man in a touristy area. We have a friendly conversation, and it becomes apparent that he hasn’t had any food or drink yet that day. He indirectly asks us if we would buy him something to drink, so we take him into a nearby cafe and buy him some coffee, then continue the conversation.
  • My son and I have just had lunch, and as we’re walking, we encounter a guy who says he’s hungry. Since I’m carrying a box with leftovers, I hand it over while telling him that the food has my germs. He’s glad to take it anyway.
  • My wife encounters a woman who needs some food. After a conversation, my wife tells her that she will go to a nearby grocery store and get her a few things. When my wife returns with food, the woman says with surprise, “You came back!” (She had had previous conversations with other people who had promised to buy her some food, but who had not returned.) The woman thanks my wife and goes home.
  • A woman comes up to me in a parking lot and asks for money. I’m in a hurry, so I take out a few bucks and say, “So, you’re going to use this for food, right?” (She nods her head.) “You’re not going to spend this on cigarettes, alcohol, or drugs, right?” (She shakes her head.) I give her the cash and say, “Remember, God is watching you.” She looks very startled, and we part.
  • My family and I are in the parking lot of a restaurant. A woman calls out to us. I tell my wife and kids to wait while I talk to her. She says she’s hungry, so I offer to walk over to a nearby fast-food restaurant with her and get her something to eat. She says she would like to eat at the sit-down restaurant that my family and I are about to enter. I shake my head, shrug, and turn around. She leaves the area.
  • My wife encounters a man at a gas station. He says that he needs some money to buy gas so that he can visit his sister. My wife tells him to pull up his vehicle to the pump, and then she’ll buy him a few bucks’ worth. The man hems and haws, and it becomes apparent that he has no vehicle. He goes to another person who is pumping gas. My wife also realizes that she had seen the same man in a nearby parking lot a bit earlier.

I admit that there have been times when I have completely ignored people asking for a handout, but I trust that there are a couple of principles that have emerged from these encounters. First of all, my wife and I always talk to the person. Second, with the exception of the fourth story (I was in a hurry, but I made it clear that I expected her to use the cash to buy food), we don’t hand out money, but we do sometimes buy food for them. My wife usually has a couple of granola bars in her purse as well. We also know people who usually carry a gift card from a fast-food restaurant for such encounters. Third, we don’t give to people who are demanding or lying.

I’m not saying that what my wife and I do (and don’t do) is the “correct” or “best” way, or that we always follow it, but the point is, we have a plan. I met a sister in my early Christian walk who was always willing to give money to people who ask for a handout, no questions asked; while I don’t follow her practice, at least she had a plan! Let’s look at what Scripture has to say in relation to this. In Deuteronomy 15:11, we read, “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land.” While this command was given to the Old Testament Israelites, I have no doubt that it applies to us as well. It also goes beyond giving handouts to people we encounter on the street; let’s be wisely generous in giving to organizations as well.

6 thoughts on “How Do You Respond to People Asking for a Handout?

  1. Keith, this is a complicated topic, as people’s circumstances are so different. I used to carry fast food gift cards with me, but lately I’ve been forgetting to get them. I almost always have protein bars in the car, and I give them out pretty regularly.
    With some encounters it’s obvious that they’re “divine appointments,” like the serendipitous day I had recently:

    “Serendipity”: Where ADD Train of Thought Meets Divine Planning

    On the last road trip we took, there was a woman at the rest stop, cleaning the restroom. And cleaning and cleaning – the cleanest restroom I’ve ever seen. I overheard her tell someone she was homeless. When the other person left, I asked her if I’d heard right, and she said “yes.” I asked if I could pray with her, and she seemed to welcome the idea. After we prayed, I asked her where she slept at night. She said in the parking lot in her car. I asked if she had a pillow, she said yes, but it was “a cr**** one.” It “just so happened” I had recently bought a good quality travel pillow that I had barely used, and it was in the car easily within reach. I gave it to her, and it seemed to bless her – I know it blessed ME. I still think of her and say a prayer for her.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ann, I had previously read–and responded to–your Serendipity post, but I reread it just now. I also appreciate your talking with the woman at the rest stop–and giving her your travel pillow. You are certainly open to encounters with the people that the Lord puts in your path. I think that was what was fundamentally missing in that Sunday school class I described; the people there seemed to have no interest in talking with the kind of people who ask for a handout. I confess that I don’t always enjoy the prospect of doing it, but I know it’s the right thing to do; sometimes that’s enough.


      1. I’ve had my share of uncomfortable encounters, too, Keith. I’m grateful for grace, because I don’t always get it right. – Sometimes there doesn’t seem to BE a right answer. There are people who are where they are because of the choices they make, and they aren’t ready to make changes. I just know if I ever find myself in that position, I would want someone to reach out to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Keith, you’ve shared some wise ways to touch people, asking for handouts, with compassion and grace. I think talking to them is a huge factor. After hearing stories from my brother, who panhandled for many years, I’m very skeptical and avoid giving cash. Unfortunately, my brother ended out in the situation he was in due to poor choices and most of the money was spent on alcohol or drugs.

    My most memorable experience of helping someone was my husband hiring a homeless person for a day’s construction work. We worked alongside this man for a long 10-hour day, fed him the same meals we had, and at the end of the day took him to a nice hotel with continental breakfast so he could shower and wouldn’t have to sleep outside. After that much time with him, we sensed validity in the story he had told us.

    At first, I was fearful when my husband told me he met and “hired” a homeless man. We had a rental property that needed some work. The man was collecting recyclable cans for the deposit refund when my husband met him and talked to him. The homeless man had a bicycle so my husband arranged to meet him a bit later at a public place after picking me up.

    We used some precautions. We did not give this man our home address, we asked the man if he had any form of ID he could show us (this allowed us to discern if we were being lied to), then gave the man the job address where he could meet us (a 5 min bike ride). These were opportunities to see if he seriously wanted to work, would follow instructions, or would disappear. He met us and earned everything he worked for. My husband agreed to pay in accordance to work performance and time put in not a specified dollar amount. In the end, the man received meals, and a hotel room for the night, and we paid him $200 cash.

    After ten hours of conversing while working, we believed his story that he was saving his can deposit refunds towards buying a bus ticket to get to another state where there was news of construction jobs. He was so thrilled to have enough to purchase a ticket and more.

    We must rely on the Holy Spirit in each situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. MK, thanks for sharing that story. Yes, talking to them is very important–that’s my first principle–and I see that you, like my wife and I, don’t hand out cash, or at least do it only in rare cases; your brother and so many others illustrate why. Sure, we must rely on the Holy Spirit, but having Biblical principles to rely on will help give us discernment.

      Liked by 1 person

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