To give, or not to give?

A story ran in the New York Times the other day about a cop who encountered a barefoot homeless man in Times Square.

“It was freezing out and you could see the blisters on the man’s feet,” [Officer Lawrence DePrimo] said in an interview. “I had two pairs of socks and I was still cold.”

In the course of their conversation, Officer DePrimo asked the older man his shoe size. The policeman left, then returned a few minutes later with socks and a new pair of boots.

Officer DePrimo’s kind act would likely have gone unnoticed if not for a passing tourist’s photograph.

Jennifer Foster via New York Times

The touching story reminded me of a debate I had last year with a dear friend. We were discussing the increase of homeless people in Paris. “I feel so bad for them,” I told her. “I probably dispense 10 euros in coins every day.”

Her response surprised me. “I never give them anything,” she said, “because it only perpetuates their suffering.” She told me that, while traveling in India, she saw a beggar get assaulted and robbed just moments after he accepted a few coins.

I’ve also heard the argument that most panhandlers will spend your money on drugs or alcohol — or that they’re not homeless at all, and it’s all a big scam.

Still, I continue to hand out my coins. Why? Not because I have the illusion that they’ll make a lasting positive difference in someone’s life. (For that, I donate to the shelters.) Rather, because it gives me an opportunity to look another person in the eye and acknowledge his or her humanity.

Clochard gentil 1100571 BW BLOG
Clochard gentil, Paris, March 2011

Of course, that’s just my philosophy — and there’s no easy answer. What are your thoughts? Do you think it’s better to give … or not to give?


  1. Without a doubt, it is better to GIVE! I read about this story in the news too and I was touched by it. We should always DO things for people because we WANT to, and NOT because we get something in return. I have always wanted to start a “PAY IT FORWARD” action on my blog to see if people will participate in it. Do something for someone, then they have to pay it forward and do something for someone else, and so on….

  2. I once saw somebody give a homeless woman a piece of bread. I think that that is the best thing to do (not necessarily bread, yet something of the sort), since it can’t be used to buy alcohol or drugs.

    • Was it a baguette, by chance? 🙂 You make an excellent point — and I have indeed handed out everything from Big Macs to grocery-store gift certificates. The important thing is to at least acknowledge people in need, and to be kind.

  3. It’s difficult, isn’t it. I have often debated what the best course of action is. On the whole I seem to do as you do: regular donations to particular charities, and ad hoc donations to individuals.

    When I was a student, with no spare change, I used to stop and chat sometimes instead, or occasionally bring someone a hot chocolate on a cold night. Sometimes these days I might only manage to look someone in the eye and give them a friendly smile; which isn’t much, but I always think that, in their shoes, I’d need the occasional warm smile just as much as a warm bed. We are only here for a short time: let’s try to be kind to each other while we can.

    • “We are only here for a short time: let’s try to be kind to each other while we can.” Once again, I find myself quoting you back to yourself. 🙂 Well spoken, DB!

  4. Noah and I had this conversation a few times in Paris. He gave away all his change; I gave none, except to buskers playing beautiful music. For some reason, my heart isn’t touched as much as it used to be by panhandlers or beggars; I feel like I just don’t know enough about their lives to know if I’m helping or hindering by giving them a few coins. ChrisW had a good thought on this — he gives to the beggar in his neighborhood, who has become a sort of “village beggar” whom he knows and follows, but not to every beggar. I dunno. There is no easy answer. But I sure like your reason, and anyone you gave to was most blessed to see your kind face and hear your sweet voice.

    • I like Chris’ “adopt-a-beggar” approach, too — and it’s an approach I’ve followed when I’ve lived long enough in a neighborhood to get to know the locals. The downside, of course, is getting attached. I still feel a little pang of sadness when I think of the teenaged boy who used to sit outside the Franprix on rue Lagrange, and the feeble smile he gave me on the day I handed him a final sandwich and told him I was going back to the States. I’ve gone back to look for him since, but have never seen him again. Hopefully he changed his stars for the better.

  5. Thanks for your sincere reflection about beggars. Here in Brazil we have this problem too. The weather is not that cold,but the homeless people sure have similar difficulties.

    I’ve benefited from reading this discussion. I don’t think the idea of adopting a beggar would work for me, since in my usual way, change is a constant: i usually don’t see the same people in the streets.

    I got to have some time to help a charity group dedicated to helping homeless people.

    • Thank you for your very thoughtful comment, musicaefantasia. I think it’s a sad fact that, wherever there are people, there are beggars. Poverty is one of the few true constants throughout human history, unfortunately. Tell me: How do people in Brazil react to the poor and the homeless? Are there shelters, or work programs?

  6. Tough one. I sometimes offer to buy them a cup of coffee if I’m buying one but hate giving cash. I reckon it’s better to give to shelters and claim it as a tax deduction so that you can give more. If cops move homeless people on, they often confiscate any cash as you are not allowed to beg in (most parts of?) Australia.

    • I very much like your logic of giving to shelters and taking the tax deduction — so you can give more, Pip Marks. How very “pragmatically generous” of you! It’s a shame that the cops can confiscate the homeless’ cash, though; seems a bit like kicking someone when they’re already down. Nevertheless, thank you for your thoughtful comment!

Leave a reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s