News & Politics

Spare Some Change?

An expert on the homeless addresses this question: Should passersby give panhandlers money?

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If you’ve passed someone panhandling on the street, you may have wondered: Should I give this person money? Would I be helping?

We put these questions to Craig Keller, team leader of the Homeless Services Office in the DC Department of Mental Health.

A lot of people assume that the money they give a homeless person goes for drugs or alcohol.

That’s not uncommon. But sometimes the person doesn’t want to go to a soup kitchen because they’re tired of that. They want a Big Mac. They want control over the decision of what they eat. Some people give a $5 McDonald’s card.

There are people who put signs up: dollars for beer. i’m not lying. People seem refreshed by the honesty.

What are myths about panhandlers?

That there are all these homeless people who don’t really need the money. There was an article in Washington City Paper about six years ago, about this guy on L Street between 17th and Connecticut. His sign said i’m 25 years old and living w/a.i.d.s. my family has shut me out when i need them most. People were so taken with him, he would make $200 a day. The City Paper found out he had two homes. After that story, he disappeared. So that’s part of urban folklore, that people on the street are cheats.

The other part is that people on the street are undeserving, that they should get a job. But people’s capacities to care for themselves can be complex.

Someone told me that even if you don’t give a homeless person money, you should acknowledge them—otherwise they lose any sense of humanity caring about them.

That is very much the case. Acknowledging the person is important and giving them an honest answer. But what will happen, very often, is that if you stop to talk, the individual engages in a whole conversation. Or sometimes the person is an aggressive panhandler and you don’t know that beforehand. But in general, it’s better to look people in the eyes and give them a response like “I’d like to but not today.” It has some risk, but it’s the risk of living in a city and being a human being.

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Executive Editor

Sherri Dalphonse joined Washingtonian in 1986. She is the editor in charge of such consumer topics as travel, fitness, health, finance, and beauty, as well as the editor who handles such cover stories as Great Places to Work, Best of Washington, Day Trips, Hidden Gems, Top Doctors, and Great Small Towns. She lives in DC.