5 Things You Should Never Do When a Homeless Person Asks For Money

There are 3.5 million homeless people in the United States. Some of them might ask you for money while you're in your car at a stop light, exiting a store or walking down the street. Here are five things you should avoid doing in response. 

1. Ignore them.

Ignoring panhandlers is the most way people respond. Unfortunately, it is also quite dehumanizing. The person asking for change has hit such a bad position that they have to suck up their pride every day and ask for change from complete strangers. If a person on the street asks you for money or food and you don't have any to give, the best thing you can do is respond politely. Acknowledge they are speaking to you, and reply, “Sorry sir/ma’am, I can’t.”

Pretending they don’t exist perpetuates stigma surrounding the homeless and other economically displaced people. 

Last spring, a documentary that went viral disguised the loved ones of passersby as homeless. They walked by their relatives, failing to acknolwedge them. It was as if these human beings blended into the concrete surroundings. Craig Mayes, executive director of New York City Rescue Mission, told the Huffington Post, "The experiment is a powerful reminder that the homeless are people, just like us, with one exception.”

2. Buy them food instead of giving money.

Let's say you buy a homeless man some food. If he were to refuse it, would you assume he wasn't really in dire straits?

When I was younger, my stepmother relentlessly reinforced her own stereotypes through this very tactic. 

“Yeah I showed him, instead of giving him a dollar, I went across the street and purchased a hamburger and guess what? He refused the burger! Can you believe it? Those meth-heads only want drugs,” she would say.

She used to do this on the corner of Shields and Blackstone, a busy intersection in Fresno, California. Fresno currently has the most unsheltered homeless people in the entire state, according to the 2013 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress. Over 94 percent of the chronically homeless in Fresno are currently unsheltered, according to the report.

Unless they say so, hunger is not the only problem homeless people face. And while most would be grateful for the gesture, perhaps the money they're asking for is needed for clothing, hygiene products, money for a motel for a night of shelter, or one of the myriad of other things people often think the homeless don’t need. Food and illegal drugs are not the only things homeless people consume.

Also, we wrongly think of hunger as the lack of food, but in reality malnutrition can occur when people consume bad, cheap food. According to a 2012 study by the Journal of Urban Health, nearly one third of homeless people are obese. 

Katherine Koh, lead study author, explained what hunger actually means: “The recently described 'hunger-obesity paradox,' which describes the co-existence of hunger and obesity in the same person, may help explain these findings. The rise of obesity among populations that lack regular access to food has recently been documented in developing countries and certain low-income populations. This research shows that this paradox may affect homeless people as well,” Koh said.

3. Tell them to get a job.

“Get a job, you lazy bum” is the cliched response, sounding off in many people's heads even if it's not uttered aloud to the person on the corner. 

Unemployment may not be the biggest concern facing the person on the street; there are many obstacles they must overcome before they can find a job (not to mention that many homeless people have jobs), from finding a safe place for the night, to finding a place to shower or even money for a toothbrush. Santiago Ruiz, a local homeless recycler in Central California, says dental hygiene is one of the bigger problems. Small issues that housed people easily deal with can simply halt any progress a homeless person might make. 

“If you got a toothache, it’s a hundred times worse on the streets,” said Ruiz. “It stops everything."

Ruiz, who is homeless but earns his income from recycling, also says being homeless doesn’t stop people from working, such as jobs like recycling cans or metals, or cleaning for local businesses.  

“Everyone works—just, when you’re homeless, it's a different kind,” said Ruiz.

4. Assume they are lying.

Some people seem to think the guy sitting on the crate at the intersection will pull off his rags and drive away in a Mercedes at the end of the day. That economically disadvantaged people are always gaming either the system is the standard conservative fantasy.

That is not realistic, and it assumes that standing outside in various types of unpleasant weather and asking unsympathetic strangers for money is an easy way to survive. 

5. Think of them as criminals or drug users.

While a high percentage of homeless people have substance abuse issues, that doesn’t mean they are criminals. The continual criminalization of our homeless, particularly in California, has risen to exceedingly discriminatory levels.

Earlier this month, the Policy Advocacy Clinic at the UC Berkeley School of Law released a report that California’s policymakers are increasing anti-vagrancy laws. The study looked at 58 different cities across the state where anti-vagrancy laws have been put into place. They concluded California is more anti-homeless on average than other states.

Marina Fisher, co-author of the report, told the Daily Californian, “There are laws that prohibit sleeping and resting on the sidewalk[But] you don’t hear about people camping at night to get the latest iPhone getting affected.”

Just last year, Fresno put the Shopping Cart Ordinance into effect. This ordinance allows the Fresno Police Department to stop any person who has a shopping cart off its designated premises. The officers would then ask the person to remove all of their belongings, and either chain the shopping cart to a nearby pole, or call a city truck to load up the shopping cart. The person could face a fine, or get a written citation. This is a prime example of how local legislation criminalizes the homeless, and treats them as a “blight issue” as opposed to citizens with rights. 

I have personally witnessed the removal of shopping carts from homeless people near the highways in Central Fresno. Watching people with their entire lives inside these carts—clothes, food, recyclables, blankets and small mementos—having to empty all those items out, while two police officers look on, is horrifying. This is just as invasive as if a police officer knocked on your door and demanded you empty out your bedroom due to the suspicion of stolen property.

Fresno City Council president Steve Brandau told a local news outlet, “People go through our garbage, they invade our neighborhoods and because of that, it's become a public safety issue.” 

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