Why I Started Giving Money to the Homeless

by Erika Torres

giving money to the homelessWhen I was about six years old, I remember going to Tijuana with my parents and taking my “purse” full of pennies. As we walked around the town—it was a lot safer back then—I would put a few pennies in each beggar’s Styrofoam cup.

While waiting in that ginormous car line to cross the border from Mexico to the U.S., I would see children my age selling Chiclets, trying to wash cars, or begging. Being six, I felt so helpless. There were all these children suffering and there was nothing I could do to help them, so I gave them my pennies.

As I’ve grown, I’ve become hardened to poverty. I grew up in a city that many consider to be the ghetto of Orange County. And with that, I saw a lot of abuse of the system.

I knew of people who had children so they could keep getting tax benefits, even though they could barely support the ones they had. I knew of people who lied to continue to receive benefits. I knew of people who got plastic surgery but couldn’t pay their bills. I knew of many, many, many people who drove brand new high-end cars, but were behind on their mortgage.

These weren’t isolated incidents. It was rampant, prevalent, and it was everywhere.

Seeing this abuse first-hand has led me to be very cynical when it comes to giving to others.

I scoff, roll my eyes, and laugh in my head, when I see people thinking they’re doing good by helping the poor in my neighborhood.

These people don’t want help, I think, they want to be poor.

Essentially, I felt that people were purposefully keeping themselves in their situation. While there are cases of people who work hard and move up, and there are also cases of students studying hard and getting scholarships, the reality is that these cases are few and far between, and it is much more common for people to be complacent with their situation and to figure out ways to cheat the system so they can continue to receive government benefits.

I was so cynical, so firm in my beliefs that we should not help these people, that I would often mentally scorn people when I saw them give to the homeless.

Don’t do that! That will just keep them begging!

Without bringing religion or politics into this discussion, I will fully admit that my cynicism went against everything I truly believe.

Several months ago, I was riding with a colleague when she saw a beggar at a stoplight. She reached for her purse, pulled out some bills, handed it to the man, and said “God bless.”

I admonished her—“you know he’s just going to use it for booze,” and she told me it didn’t matter. We never know what someone’s situation is, why they got into that situation, or what they’re going through in life, she said.

I didn’t agree with her.

There have been times where I have tried to give food to a homeless man to be told no, they wanted cash. I have tried to give a protein bar to a homeless man to be told no, he didn’t want that. They just want cash, and they want it for booze.

It’s stories like this that make us all feel okay for not helping out our fellow man:


Since that ride with my colleague, I have seen beggars twice now, and twice I have given them money.

Before that, I can’t even remember the last time I gave money to the homeless.

I went through a lot of back and forth mentally when I saw a homeless man: Should I give money to him? What will he do with it? Why does it matter? But in the end, I have tried really hard on working to be a more compassionate person and so I decided to let compassion win in this case.

I don’t think that giving money to someone who may likely use it on booze is going to change the world or anything, but like my colleague said–I have no idea what they are going through. Perhaps they were dealt a really shitty card in life–is it fair that I got a great family and that person didn’t? That I had a very strong support system and that person didn’t?

Should we ever kick a person when they’re down?

I don’t have some strong statement as to why I started giving money to the homeless.

Frankly, I ignored them before. And now I choose not to.

Either way, I feel like a better person because of my decision to help rather than to ignore even a small fraction of humanity.

I 99% believe that I am simply being a sucker and that $2 won’t help them out in any way, but I 100% believe that I would rather be a sucker than to turn my back on my fellow man.


Michelle November 21, 2014 - 6:45 am

You’re talking about the reawakening of compassion. I just think that we are so hard on people and almost angry with them for being human, weak, etc. Not everyone is a badass like we are. Life is freaking tough on people and the older I get, the more I understand that. So, I try to be kind because that’s the better choice for me and how I would like to deal with others. I should say that I very rarely give cash to people who are asking for it. Usually I just have a strong feeling that I have to help someone who has crossed my path. And then I do.

Lisa November 19, 2014 - 1:23 pm

As a Catholic who went to college in San Francisco, I feel torn on the subject. I try to give when I can, but I can’t help but wonder if I’m really doing any good.

mrsfrugalwoods@gmail.com November 19, 2014 - 4:47 am

I like your approach to this–that it doesn’t matter what they’ll use the money for, just that they’re in need. Living in NYC, DC, and Boston has hardened me somewhat to people begging, but I try to show compassion. One thing I always did on the subway in NYC was give food to people who were begging. I know it wasn’t exactly what they were asking for, but, I usually didn’t carry any cash and I always had a spare banana or granola bar.

Jay @ Thinking Wealthy November 20, 2014 - 5:57 pm

Have you guys seen the story of a coder teaching a homeless man how to code? Look it up, great read. Now to the point, I’ve seen people give the homeless money and them walk into a store and buy booze. Not once, not twice, but many, many times. That’s why I’m hardened…

the roamer November 17, 2014 - 2:58 pm

It was great to meet you on sat. I hope you cross off some more stuff from your baby bucket list.

poor fat chick November 17, 2014 - 12:15 pm

I admit i have struggled with this to.. mainly becuase of what i have seen in my area. I once saw a man in a wheelchair asking for change (claiming he was disabled and unable to work) and two hours later when i walked past him again i saw him stand up and walk his chair away.. i also saw once a young lady give a coffee and sandwich to a homeless man on the street only to have him knock the coffee on her and throwing the sandwich in her face screaming “i want money b*tch”

I don’t know the situation surronding these people how they got there etc but i have seen to many things not to wonder. So instead i give money directly to homeless shelters, food banks or hospitals where i know it will do good. I also am looking at my own circle of friends.. a friend of mine was struggling after having her second baby so a few of us got together and made a whole wack of freezer meals for her.. That i knew was helping someone in need.

Myles Money November 17, 2014 - 11:06 am

I am completely perplexed by a society which struggles with the idea of giving a few dollars to someone who clearly needs a helping hand, and which also berates anyone who tips anything less than 15%, no matter how bad the service is.

Here’s the deal: tip your waiter if he is good and give money to the homeless because YOU are good. ** Rant over **

The Roamer November 17, 2014 - 2:55 pm

Myles I was nodding my head at your response. Honestly I also don’t get it.

On the same token I normally don’t give. Usually I don’t carry cash. Still I would like to try giving food.

Myles Money November 22, 2014 - 6:04 am

It’s getting cold out now and (despite the recent TV piece) most people sitting out on the street begging for money are not doing it for fun: if you look, you will see them shivering and dejected. They’ve fallen on hard times but nine times out of ten, there will be a good reason for it. The few coins in your pocket will not save their life and it won’t change a drug or an alcohol problem, but it a cup of coffee and a kind word can go a long way in a cold, dispassionate world… I am surprised by how quick people are to judge others, usually from the comfort of their near-perfect lives. I hope you never fall on hard times, but if you do, I hope you find yourself on the receiving end of people’s kindness, not their scorn.

Myles Money November 22, 2014 - 6:07 am

Apologies… the comment above was supposed to be a general comment, not a reply to The Roamer: please don’t take it as a criticism!

evolvingpf@gmail.com November 17, 2014 - 10:48 am

My husband is a bit more of a bleeding heart than I am when it comes to giving directly to the homeless. He doesn’t like to pass people by without showing acknowledging their need, as you said. Our solution is to give nominal amounts of cash directly ($2-5) and at least an order of magnitude more to local homeless shelters (where we also volunteer from time to time). For us this satisfies both sides of the argument.

Ris November 17, 2014 - 10:27 am

I give homeless people money (when I come across them and when I have cash on me) because I know that when you’re in that situation, you don’t have much agency. Giving them $2 gives them a choice of what to do with it. In a world where they don’t get a lot of choice–especially compared to the rest of us–that can give them back a little dignity. Do I feel like I’m saving the world? No, but I always hope it helps brighten their day in any small way. Am I going to do something earth shattering in my own life with $2? No, so why not hand it to someone else who needs it more than I do?

JF November 17, 2014 - 7:43 am

I’ve struggled with this, too. I am overall a very positive and optimistic person, trying to see and assume the best in everyone. But I often wonder if my cash will be used to fill a belly with food or for other, less virtuous choices. As such, I tend to donate to my local food pantry and homeless shelters instead of directly to panhandlers. My husband recently humbled me by giving money to someone on the side of the road. He said, “Anyone who actually asks for help needs it.” And he’s right. My plan, that I haven’t yet put into action, is to have a few $10 gift cards to Burger King, Wendy’s, and maybe a local supermarket in my car that I can easily hand out to those asking for help. Not the most nutritious options, but that way, I know they can have a hot meal on me.

newlywedsonabudget November 17, 2014 - 7:57 am

I think those are very worthy causes as well–any way in which we can help, we’re all doing the best we can.

Tonya@Budget and the Beach November 17, 2014 - 6:57 am

I must admit I’ve always struggled with this myself. It’s not that I don’t want to help, but I’ve also had a lot of experience seeing how enabling has done more destruction than good, and don’t want to feed that problem, so I’ve always been very hesitant to give out money that way. But I feel very guilty.

newlywedsonabudget November 17, 2014 - 7:57 am

I know!! I hear you… I was tired of feeling guilty I guess (the Catholic in me…)

Kirsten November 17, 2014 - 6:46 am

i almost never gave cash on me and where I live, you don’t see too many homeless or beggars (zither exist, of course). But I agree with you and your colleague – they ask for help and if I can, I will. Maybe they don’t really need the help but maybe they really do. I’d rather help than turn my back.

holly@clubthrifty.com November 17, 2014 - 5:57 am

My husband always tells me I’m a sucker for homeless people on the streets. I tend to give something if I have any cash. I don’t worry if they spend it on booze. The way I see it, I can afford the extra $3 or $5 (or whatever) no matter what they spend it on.

Catherine November 17, 2014 - 5:03 am

We have a pretty decent social assistant program here and being in Canada people often aren’t homeless for the same reasons (ie no one would be on the streets after going bankrupt from not being able to afford medical treatment) fpr these reasons i have a probw giving cash. However i do like the idea of homeless bags and I’ve also in my job (where i see some of the “worst off” in society) have given many free services and things. I’ve also gone out of my way to help some people who need it but given the stories people tell me i have am issue with physical cash. Again, not am excuse to not help in some way though.

newlywedsonabudget November 17, 2014 - 7:59 am

Well to be fair, most of the people I’ve seen who are homeless are not on the streets because they went bankrupt due to medical treatments. I’m sure those are the cases that the media reports on, but they are the exception, not the rule. Most cases you see on the street are very apparent to be due to drug use/addiction, etc. As in, you give people money, and five minutes later see them walking into the liquor store.


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