“Beggars should be abolished entirely! Truly, it is annoying to give to them and it is annoying not to give to them.” – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Walking past a homeless person named – let’s say – Hank always leaves me with some uncertainty about what to do. I think that Nietzsche’s quote typifies most people’s sentiments. We feel guilty, on the one hand, for not giving Hank money that we can certainly spare. But on the other hand, we feel guilty because we may have contributed to Hank’s addictions or laziness.
In short, I believe the answer to this question is not simply a) give Hank money; or, b) don’t give Hank money. I believe there is a third, more appropriate, option that we often overlook, perhaps on purpose. I think the best response is to get to know Hank. Seeing Hank as a person, not a beggar, changes our options. What we all want – whether we prefer option a or b – is to help Hank. But the best way to truly help him is to learn who Hank is and develop some sort of relationship.
There is some trouble with simply throwing a dollar in Hank’s cup and walking past. It gives us a false feeling of doing sacrificial good and never gets to the heart of Hank’s problems. And there is also some trouble in choosing to not give Hank any money. From a Christian perspective, Jesus is clear in saying that we are to not refuse a person who is asking for monetary assistance: “Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)
And I believe this is related to a larger point, which hits home whether we are Christian, Muslim, Buddhist or Atheist. When we refuse to give any money to Hank, we are making a judgment. We are assuming that Hank’s problems are only made worse by charitable giving. If he doesn’t have access to free money, he won’t be awash in drugs and alcohol and he’ll be forced to find a job. Now, in my limited experience, this is a pretty naïve way of understanding the homeless population. There is a degree of truth to it and yes, our hearts might even be in the right place. The problem, however, is that we’re in absolutely no position to be making that judgment. How can we know the depths of Hank’s problems if we refuse to get to know him? Who are we to say that Hank does not deserve a dollar? And, finally, is there any evidence whatsoever that suggests that not giving money to Hank will help him in any possible way?
Many people also choose to buy Hank something instead of giving money, typically a sandwich or a coffee. But even this is rendered useless if we choose to distance ourselves from the person we are giving to. I recently talked with a homeless individual who was being brought a dozen cups of coffee throughout the day. If people had just stopped to talk with this man, they would know that he did not need any more coffee and, ironically, he was actually developing a caffeine addiction as a result.
If we have to choose between giving Hank something and not giving him anything, I think the better option is the former. Although the best option, and one that solves many of the problems with both approaches, is to get to know Hank. It’s not easy to get to know every homeless person we encounter, but it’s easy enough to say hi and at least treat them as a human being.