For many people living or working in large cities, being asked for money is an everyday experience. It can often cause feelings of distress, guilt and confusion.
What is the best way to respond to someone asking you for money? In 20 years of working with homeless people, it is by far the most common question I have been asked in relation to my work.
It is a sensitive subject. I want to avoid the polarization which often occurs between what is seen as compassion on one hand and cynicism on the other.
As this article will make clear, I do not agree with giving money to people begging, but I take this view because I don’t believe it actually helps them. I am not advocating harshness but rather a compassionate realism about the nature of the problems which surround those who beg.
‘Give to anyone who asks’?
For many people of faith, their beliefs can add a further layer of complexity to this issue. After all, Jesus’ said ‘Give to anyone who asks you’ (Luke 6:30). And Jewish Scriptures state ‘If anyone is poor…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7). And the Quran says ‘You shall give the due alms to the relatives, the needy, the poor, and the travelling alien’ (17:26-29).
As a Christian, I believe that the overriding imperative is to love our neighbour and to be especially concerned for those in need. But as I have seen over many years, with many hundreds of people, giving money to someone begging is not showing them love. And it certainly does not address their needs.
Points to consider
Firstly, it is important to remember that the issue of homelessness and begging are related but are not the same. Many of those who beg are not homeless, and majority of homeless people do not beg.
Secondly, the link between begging and alcohol and drug misuse is well-proven. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that between 70 and 80% of those arrested for begging tested positive for Class A drugs. Most recently, in autumn 2013, every single one of 40 people arrested in Birmingham failed a drug test.
Thirdly, we need to recognize the untruthful manipulation at work in the exchange between someone begging and a potential donor. Often the scenario presented is designed to place maximum emotional pressure on the hearer to do what is being asked; e.g. that money is needed to pay for a hostel bed, to get a hot meal or travel money to see an ill child. Hostels and shelters for homeless people do not charge per night in this way. In my experience, the vast majority of the other scenarios presented are simply not true.
Fourthly, success in gaining money through begging undermines the positive work going on. I used to manage a hostel in Soho with homeless young people who could make very large sums of money from people leaving the pubs and night clubs around Old Compton Street. Often they would use the duvets we had given them as props to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough and we fought a losing battle in drawing these vulnerable young people away from the instant cash they could get from begging. Despite the stories they told about needing it for food, virtually all of it would be spent on drugs.
Allowing untruthful and manipulative behaviour to succeed in eliciting cash helps nobody. In fact it further imprisons the person in a world of deceit. In Thames Reach’s phrase, it can literally be ‘killing with kindness’.
Some of the best conversations I have had with people begging have been when they are clear that I will not give them money and we can talk openly without the false pretense.
I had a long conversation with a man at Clapham Junction after he unsuccessfully begged from me. At the end of our chat, I explained that I often speak to churches about these issues and asked him if he thought people should ever give to people begging. He replied: ‘Never. I tell you it all goes on heroin and crack.’
As human as possible
One of the primary needs of homeless and vulnerable people is healthy, positive relationships, built on truth and honesty. And whilst we can’t have meaningful relationships with everyone we only meet briefly, we can seek to be as human as possible in all the encounters we have.
People who beg are not intrinsically bad people and we should avoid any language or tone which can appear harsh, cynical or dismissive. None of these approaches will help – most of them already feel bad enough about themselves and their situation. What we have to do is understand more fully the powerful and warping effect of addiction to drink or drugs has on people.
How should we respond?
So to answer the title of this article, I would recommend the following:
- When someone begs from you, look them in the eye when you respond and speak as confidently as you can.
- If you have time, stop and talk with them. Ask them their first name and share yours.
- If you have the time and money, offer to buy them a cup of tea, or a sandwich or pasty.
- Do some work to find out what drop-in centres, charities or churches are open for homeless or vulnerable people in the area where you live or work. Knowing what is available allows you to ask the person if they know about these and whether they have used them. At the church where I work we have a list ready to give to people with information about opening times and what is available.
- If you are worried about the vulnerability of someone sleeping rough then contact Street Link on 0300 500 0914 to inform them. This is a coordinated phone line to help inform the Outreach teams who work on the streets to help homeless people.
All of my experience and reflection on this issue makes me conclude that we should not give cash to people who beg. But we should never be judgmental or forget to treat them as humans.
It is often easier to give someone a few quid than give 10 minutes of our time. But if we are prepared to talk and to give something of ourselves, you never know what difference it could make.
You can listen to me discussing this issue on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Beyond Belief’ on Begging. The programme also features my friend, and former rough sleeper, Chris Ward who shares his own testimony. (Chris’s section is at 12.42)
46 thoughts on “How should we respond to people begging?”
this is a conversation i was having with a police officer the other day, he said the only solution is to stop people giving money. He explained that you can give as much to help to people who are begging but if they know after all the handouts they can then go and make a further £70 (the minimum for a weekend evening) then they will go straight back out and claim the extra money.
Thanks John and for sharing your link
Please explain the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
Also the story of the rich ruler.
I am kind of curious how you support yourself.
Hi Ed, thanks for asking the question. I guess you are meaning that both these stories/incidents in the gospels suggest we should give money to people begging?
As I have always argued, I do think we should be kind and compassionate and show as much love as we can to those affected by homelessness and associated issues. For me, it is simply not loving to hand over cash as it does not actually improve the person’s situation.
The story of Lazarus is 2000 years old. Begging and alms giving were different back then – this was the system of help that was established. Today, there are legions of agencies which can help people in the UK to get the help they need. Often, the link between begging and addictions is far stronger than the link between begging and homelessness. People need people to be humans, to be kind, to give their time and to do all we can to connect them to places where they can get real help.
Sadly Jon, I feel your articles merely give solace and justification to greed. I’m not so much concerned with “their” addiction to drugs as I am with “our” addition to money.
Thanks for reading and commenting Fred. An article based on greed and addiction to money would have a different focus. I am concerned with what is best for people caught in cycles of addiction and homelessness. I disagree I give solace and justification for greed because I focus on giving time, advice and purchasing things – all of which often ‘cost’ more than handing over cash. For many people (like me) who have a good income, handing over £10 makes little difference – often spending time with someone is far more challenging. The main point is that I believe (more than ever) that handing over cash does not help – either them or us. We walk away feeling better but we shouldn’t.
Recently, I did a talk with a formerly homeless young woman who I used to work with when she was sleeping rough in Soho. She told me that once a man in a flash car stopped when she was begging on Piccadilly and gave her £300. He thought she would get herself a hotel room or pay for a room for a few nights. She blew it all on drugs and had nothing left by the next day. What help did that give anyone? Maybe the rich chap drove away feeling generous – like he was Richard Gere in ‘Pretty Woman’ – but in effect his actions did nothing useful.
I am fine with advising people to be generous and give their money to good causes and whatever form of redistribution they choose. But simply do not believe that giving cash to people begging who have addictions actually helps them.
Thank you for this thought provoking article. I remember taking a man who was begging into a sweet shop, hoping that he would not buy a presentation box, but he choose something simple like a Mars bar. You are right – it is often gifts of kindness rather than money that many people who beg require.
I love stories like this – we have to keep the compassion! Thanks Andrew
Reblogged this on and commented:
A question that troubles us all and Jon’s response is compassionate and caring.
Jon, thank you, so helpful
Spot on Jon. Last week I spoke to someone about why they had stopped selling the Big Issue. “There’s no point”. They said. ” I can get much more money begging”.
thanks Jon, really good, helpful and wise
A good article, thank you. The point about drugs features a lot. How do you respond to the argument that one cannot solve a drug addition by withholding money, and if a drug addict can’t get money from begging they are more likely to be driven to other methods (e.g. theft)?
I’d be interested in the answer to this question!
Me too. It’s not up to me to dictate what strategies homeless people take to deal with their situation. If it’s bad enough that they’ve turned to substances to get by, I respect that choice. And if they don’t feel that there’s enough support in place for them to safely battle a resulting addiction while on the streets, I respect their choice to meet whatever needs they feel are most pressing with whatever money they obtain.
Really good article! I once met a guy begging and took him to nearby supermarket. He told me they might not let him in as he was dirty, but we got in ok. We had a lot of fun filling a bag of stuff and he said it made him feel like it was Christmas. Lovely guy.
Dear Jonathan (my name for you!) A very helpful article. I’ve shared it – hope that’s OK. Love Mum
Sent from my iPad
Thanks Jon – this is a really helpful and thoughtful response. Do you think we should send it to Rosa, the secretary of Churches Together in Westminster, to circulate to the churches who were at HS last week, since the question was raised there?
Thanks for your thoughtful post.
What are your thoughts on Oxford’s new approach sending beggars to court? http://oxford.gov.uk/PageRender/decN/newsarticle.htm?newsarticle_itemid=57617
Thanks, great helpful and insightful article. Will share on Facebook with friends, cheers 🙂
What I learnt from my time homeless and begging on the streets of the West End including Old Compton Street, is that the majority of beggars are the good hearted people on the streets. There are other things you can do to earn money for drugs – robbing, prostitution, clipping, dipping, stealing……. the awful things you do when begging fails to bring the money you need for your habit. Beggars are the people that don’t want to lose their dignity completely – they’d rather ask for money than get it using other means. they are incapable of holding down a job. Two of the most powerful moments I had from people was when they did not give me money but they spoke to me like i was a valuable and worthy person. I’ve never forgotten it – they were like angels and I have no doubt they tapped into the strength inside me that eventually saw me run away from the streets. But what would have happened if I’d not been given money? maybe I never would have begged in the first place – or maybe I would have fallen into darker things for a longer period of time……..
Hi Katy, thanks so much for your comment and thoughts on the issue. Your feedback is perhaps the most helpful of all because of your lived experience. I guess you are both agreeing with one of my key points (engage and talk with people begging with dignity and respect) but questioning another key point about not giving money (as it may lead people into doing more drastic things). I worked with many people doing all the even worse things – especially the extremly dangerous practice of clipping – and I acknowledge the tension in what you raise. The problem for me is that I wonder how many are being helped to slowly kill themselves and their futures due to being enabled to maintain their drug habit. I think we can never know for sure – as your comment alludes to the mysteries involved in what helps people change. I guess I stand by what I wrote and encourage people to be the ‘angels’ you have referred to – those who can help tap into the strength and longing that exists within everyone for a better and more whole life. Thanks for reading and commenting.
Thank you for your wisdom. I’m posting from the U.S., where our small town is newly experiencing begging on busy street corners. People are wondering what the loving response should be. I just posted a link to your essay on Facebook.
Thanks Jeanette – it’s messages like this that make the time and effort to write feel worthwhile! Many thanks and all the best in showing the right kind of compassion. God bless, Jon
Here’s an intersting article arguing giving to beggars can be a good thing:
My mom worked for a church for many years. People would come in off the streets demanding cash. Look at it from her point of view: it made her feel unsafe to work at the church. Some people got upset if the church did not give them money. And they would not accept food, clothing or the offer to pay a bill directly. They always just wanted cash. I also know a woman who went around to different churches asking for cash, and when they wouldn’t give it to her, she held horrible grudges against them. She simply felt that if they were “real Christians” they would give her what she wanted. We need to educate the public that it’s not the purpose of the Church to grant wishes or provide immediate gratification for people.
Hi Rebekah, thanks for the comment. This too often is the reality in many places. The sad thing is that this kind of situation does not really help anyone – it reinforces manipulative behaviour and ruins relationships. Churches need to learn more about practising a blend of grace and truth – so that people are welcomed but clear boundaries are asserted – especially around giving money. You might be interested in this article ‘when helping homeless people doesn’t help’ on that very issue: https://resistanceandrenewal.net/ethics/when-helping-people-doesnt-help-full-article/
Thanks for putting in the time to write this article Jon. A couple of thoughts.
1. I wonder if any one response should be advocated. One of the stats that you give suggests that 80% of people involved in begging have addiction problems… Even if you think its a bad idea to give these people money, what about the other 20% (i recognise that other stats you give suggest a higher percentage)? My point being that I think it may be more compassionate to engage with people and find out their circumstances (recognising that many people with addiction problems have developed skills of storytelling etc.). Personally (when I do stop and talk to people – which is by no way all the time) this has led me to identify other needs such as food, cigarettes, clothes (as your own recommendations acknowledge) etc….I very rarely give money. I think we are taking a risk in giving or not giving, but a blanket position in my view misses some real opportunities to meet humanity at a deeper level.
But my main point is:
2. In terms the recommendations at the end of the article I think we need to break out of simply looking at this in the immediate (I know you clearly already do this mate), personal context. You know better than I that these issues are systemic to a culture rooted in the corporate/collective greed of neoliberalism. Therefore, surely your recommendations need to also include challenging all of us to resist and relinquish not only our own stake in this system, but also a willingness to directly challenge the vested interests of government; banks; corporations etc. which construct a system of such gross inequality……
HI Chris – thanks for the comment and you make a good point and I have had your voice (as I often do!) in my head as I have spoken and written about this in the last few weeks. We need to make sure that our comments about this issue are seen and heard in the context of being deeply angry about the on-going injustice of poverty and inequality. I think this is a problem and I want to ensure that whenever I speak about this I talk about the deeper issues which need structural and political responses. Thanks for highlighting and your comment. God bless mate and I hope you are well.
I strongly disagree with most of your article; I think it basically lets people (esp Christians) off the hook when it comes to giving charitably. Begging is humiliating. There may be a handful who do so disingenuously but i don’t blame people e.g for wanting to spend the money on alcohol etc when their life is awful! Of course there need to be charities and organizations working on the larger picture of rehoming, and spending time with these people is so important – not not giving? No.
well thanks for the comment even though we disagree. It is humiliating and this is why we need to do all we can to help people get out of a life of begging rather than sustain and continue it by giving. My views could be seen as letting people off the hook but I think mindlessly giving cash also lets people off the hook. We should engage and connect with people and help them as much as we can. But giving cash does not help in the vast, vast majority of cases.
My husband died of alcoholism 6 years ago. We were married 27 years, and he was unrecognisable by the end, making all our lives hell for the last 3 years of it. This is why I do not give money to beggars. Instead, I ask if they’d like a sandwich and a coffee, or I give them a gift card for a place that sells food but NOT alcohol e.g. Subway or Greggs.
I am sorry to hear this and your loss. I completely understand your view and you may be interested in this piece I wrote about my cousin in a similar situation: https://resistanceandrenewal.net/2017/11/08/%EF%BB%BFmy-cousin-and-the-bitter-cost-of-drug-addiction/
I needed to read this today. I live in an urban area in the U.S. As you probably know, the US has a generally unhealthy social structure that predisposes many of our impoverished to seek escape in the form of substance abuse and many of the “programs” offered —combined with our judicial structure- further imprison the addicted. Needless to say, I’m often confronted with this challenge. To make matters worse, I’m inclined to help others in any way I can. Often these individuals “see” this quality in me and make extra effort to manipulate me. I was raised to “always offer food or water if you can, but never give money”. Even when I have something to give, I am still left with guilt that I can’t do more. I was confronted again today and it breaks my heart… I wish that I had more control of how my taxes are allocated to individuals in need. Maybe someday our system will improve, until then I’ll continue donating using your recommendations.
what a horrible way to think, be very ashamed of yourself
What is your suggestion?
2 Thessalonians 3:10 states:
– For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.” –