January 19, 2020

To give or not to give?

We asked experts on homelessness what to do when passing a homeless person on the street. The answers have been edited for length and clarity.

The most important thing to remember when you see a homeless person is that they, like you, are a human being.  They were given a name by their mother, they have dreams and aspirations.  As one formerly homeless woman told me, the hardest part of being homeless is the social isolation. There is nothing worse than feeling like an object thrown out into the gutter.  When you see someone who is suffering homelessness, the most important thing you can do is look them in the eye like a friend and say “Hello.”  The rest is commentary, now go and learn.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, clergy member at Valley Beth Shalom and Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) commissioner

[Jewish, homeless and alone: One tale of grief on L.A.’s streets]

My best recommendation would be for someone who encounters a homeless person to try to direct them to a local shelter or service center that would provide intake and shelter and the other necessities of the person needs. Often, low-income destitute folks who panhandle would use the money they receive from friendly neighbors to attempt to purchase drugs or alcohol, and that would only prolong their problem. We basically discourage giving to panhandlers.

Rabbi Marvin Gross, former longtime CEO of Union Station Homeless Services

Because of the work I have done for 35 years and still do, I am unable to pass a single homeless person on the streets without deep feelings of anger and despair. I am angry because I know that this doesn’t have to be and that they are on the streets because we as a civil society have failed them. It’s not rocket science! So what do I do when passing a homeless person on the streets? I quite often stop to make eye contact and then give them $5 or $10, depending upon what is in my wallet at the time. Why do I do this? Do they deserve it? Will they just by drugs or alcohol? I do it because I care that they are suffering and I try to let them know by my actions that I see them and am sorry.

Tanya Tull, homelessness policy pioneer and CEO of Partnering for Change

The most important rule of thumb is that people should do what they are comfortable with, whether that is a smile, hello, water bottle, protein bar, meal or a conversation. Homelessness can feel dehumanizing, so just acknowledging a person can sometimes make a difference.

Victor Hinderliter, associate director of homeless services for LAHSA

Whether to give someone who is homeless on the street spare change or cash is a highly personal decision. There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to human compassion. The question to consider is what the purpose or motivation is for you to give money and whether doing so fulfills that motivation.

Dora Leong Gallo, CEO of A Community of Friends, a nonprofit that operates permanent supportive housing

Are you homeless or struggling? Here are some numbers to call.

Jewish Family Service Central Access (877) 275-4537

Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) Emergency Response Team (213) 225-6581

LAHSA Shelter Hotline (800) 548-6047