If you’re approached on a local street for a handout, what’s the right thing to do?
It’s a cold early winter day in Lindsay. The lighter grey of afternoon is darkening and the wind is picking up. The woman is probably in her early 30s. Her long brown hair is topped with a patterned tuque and her coat is unzipped over a sweater. She approaches with purpose but without aggression across the grocery store parking lot. “Excuse me, but could you spare some change for the bus?”
Running into a situation like this in Toronto is one thing, and over the past few years, it’s become increasingly common even in Peterborough. But in Lindsay? Panhandling is unusual enough here that this particular appeal — a true story, by the way — lingers in the mind long after it’s over.
After all, this is a small, close-knit community where everyone knows everyone and we look after each other. So encountering someone begging for money feels more shocking here, somehow, and not so easy to brush off. Should you give the woman money or not?
It’s easy to be paralyzed when it feels like there’s no right answer. On the one hand, you don’t really believe the thing about the bus, and can’t help but suspect that the purchase is more likely to involve something that makes you uncomfortable. On the other, you just dropped $150 on groceries, so it seems just plain mean not to hand over a paltry toonie. But even if you did, what difference could a few dollars possibly make?
“It’s certainly an awkward situation,” acknowledged David Tilley, executive director of the shelter for homeless people, A Place Called Home. “You don’t know them. They don’t know you. And you don’t know if that money would be used in the best manner.”
It’s a tough decision to make on the spot in just a few seconds, said Rev. Linda Park of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Lindsay. “I feel for them.”
While some churches in town set aside a little money for clergy to give according to their discretion to people in truly desperate situations, St. Andrew’s no longer does. “We’ve done it in the past,” Park said, “but it’s very hard to discern who’s truly in need.”
Instead of a cash handout, the church offers food, asks the person looking for help what they need and directs them to other agencies. Pre-COVID, it provided facilities, staffed by volunteers from its own membership and others in the community, for a soup kitchen. During the pandemic it shifted to offering box lunches.
Rather than giving money, another option is to have some $5 gift cards for chain restaurants with you. That way, you know you’re providing food or a hot drink, right? Sure. Maybe. But unless you take the person to a restaurant and buy something for them, they may just sell your gift card if what they really want is money. And if we’re being honest, this approach is mostly meant to assuage our own concerns, given how clearly it suggests that we know better than the recipient what that person needs.
If uncertainty abounds for those of us trying to decide what the right thing is, Tilley, whose organization works with those who are homeless in our community, has no such doubts. “I generally don’t encourage panhandling. When I’m approached, I typically say I give to charity.”
His experience has taught him that money is better used elsewhere. “A social agency like ours and others is able to take those dollars and multiply them. That brings better value to the community.”
The kitchen at A Place Called Home is a good example, he said. Volunteers and staff can buy supplies in large quantities and make multiple servings of a nourishing meal for those who are homeless, stretching a donation much farther than an individual could.
Local social agencies have strong connections to each other; they and the churches refer people to organizations such as Women’s Resources, the many food banks supported by Kawartha Lakes Food Source, A Place Called Home, second-hand clothing stores and sources of help such as the Canadian Mental Health Association, the city’s social services department and Community Care.
“We feed everybody. We shelter everybody. If they need food there are food banks. There’s no need to panhandle,” Tilley said.
Making your conscience feel better for a few minutes can actually backfire, he added. “It typically creates a snowball effect in the community. If it works, more and more people will try it.”
If that feels a bit cold, you’re forgetting an important part of the equation: the other person. “I think every individual, no matter their situation, needs to be acknowledged,” said Park. “Everyone deserves respect and dignity.”
When she was studying in Montreal, she remembers trying to avoid lineups of people begging for change outside subway stations. “My goal was not to look them in the eye.”
That all changed when she actually spoke to one of the people asking for help. “She told me the hardest thing was all the people who won’t even acknowledge them.”
Even if you’re saying no to a request, Park said, taking a moment to look the person in the eye and speak to them makes a connection. “It’s huge. You break any barriers between you by doing that.” Sure, some people will tell you off, but that’s still a human interaction.
It’s hard to say no to someone in our community who’s mustered the courage to ask for help. For the price of a few dollars, you might feel a little better, but you may well be making things worse. And if someone comes up to you in a parking lot and you feel moved to give, that’s a compassionate impulse — feeling like you’re making a difference, however small, in someone else’s life is a powerful thing.
But perhaps most important of all is to stop, smile and acknowledge the other person and their humanity, even if the next thing you say is, “I give to several local charities. I’m sorry I can’t help you today.”