I’ve said it time and time again – giving is an important part of my finances.
However, giving to the homeless is where it gets tricky for me. I admit, I was a bit sheltered growing up. Growing up in the nicer part of town and attending private school my entire life meant that I rarely saw homeless people, and whenever I did I was told to avert my eyes and to not engage.
When I first started living in San Francisco, homeless people became a usual sight to see. They wander the streets, gather in public parks, sleep by the entrances of BART stations, you get the picture.
I guess you can say it was a culture shock. From growing up, learning to not engage and not even look at homeless people to seeing them pretty much on every street was quite the change.
I’ve had my fair share of homeless people/beggars approaching me, asking me for food/money. Some look well-dressed, others not so much. Some are sober and well-spoken, others are drunken and can barely hold themselves up.
One thing is for sure: not everyone who is homeless fits into the “homeless” stereotype.
A struggling young man
A few years ago, when I first started college, my friend and I were walking the streets of San Francisco at night (I honestly forgot why) when a guy approached us. He started off by asking us for a minute of our time. At first, I reverted to what I was told to do when I was younger – don’t look and don’t engage. However, what this guy had to say caught my attention.
After quick introductions, he got right into it – he was a struggling young man, trying to find a way home. He had lost everything, but he wasn’t asking us for money. He wasn’t even asking us for food. He was asking us to buy him some shampoo and soap so he can take a proper shower, which was something he hasn’t done in a long time. He said he was staying at a local shelter temporarily, but they never had enough shampoo/soap since the shelter was always full and crowded.
He went on, “I know how skeptic people can be when they’re being asked of their money. I know, I’ve been there. But this way, you know exactly where your money is going, you don’t have to worry if I’m just going to waste it on alcohol or anything like that. All I want is to feel clean for once, and to share with the other guys at the shelter.”
This guy was around our age, so he ended up being really easy to talk to – very relatable. Basically, he was trying to find his place in life. He wasn’t bitter about his situation. Instead, when we kept saying we were “sorry” for him, he told us not to be and simply stated that “everyone starts somewhere”.
A proper shower was something I took for granted. It was eye opening to see this man, who wasn’t too much older than me, begging on the street just for some shampoo. My friend and I went into the nearest Walgreens, grabbed him some soap and shampoo, and tossed a $20 bill into the bag before handing it to him and wishing him luck/our prayers.
When is it appropriate to give?
That situation completely changed my viewpoint on giving to the homeless. I was taught to not even look at the homeless, let alone think about giving anything. Yes, I was sheltered. However, that doesn’t mean it’s okay to give in all cases.
Personally, I don’t give if they’re clearly disrespectful. I lived a few blocks from Haight street in San Francisco, which is basically known for having a lot of drunk homeless people around. I’ve been approached by too many people who were drunk out of their minds and called me and my friends inappropriate names before having the nerve to ask for money or booze (mostly booze).
On the flip side, if you feel like the person who is asking for help is being sincere and respectful, it is safe to give. Like the situation I mentioned above, the guy who approached me and my friend was super respectful and humble.
Basically, follow your gut. If you don’t feel comfortable at all, then don’t give. Simply walk away and say “Sorry, I don’t have anything”.
What if you do feel comfortable giving? How can you help the homeless?
What you can give
From my experience, the number one thing I have been asked to give was money. If I’m walking out of a store, sometimes I’ll drop off my change to the nearest homeless guy on the block.
However, I personally prefer to give food. If I have leftovers that I probably won’t touch after, I’ll hand it to the next homeless person I see on the street. Sometimes, I grab an extra granola bar from work to hand to the guy who is always sitting right outside my BART station. Money is nice and all, but food sustains you.
But what if I don’t have any food or money? My friend used to work with a lot of homeless people in his line of work, and he told me that the best thing you can do is look at them and smile. Being homeless does a number on one’s self confidence, and being ignored by many people passing by has unfortunately become a usual part of their life. Offering someone a look and a smile shows that you acknowledge their presence, which can do wonders for someone’s day.
What do you think? Do you give to the homeless?