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.