Beggars Can Be Choosers

This blog could also be titled: “Why I don’t give money to beggars.” But I thought the other line was more clever.

A long time ago I decided that the majority of beggars were much more likely to spend any money I gave them on booze, drugs, and cigarettes than what they actually claimed they needed the money for (food, shelter, bus fare, etc). There are four things I really didn’t like about the idea of giving money to beggars:

  1. I don’t like being lied to.
  2. I don’t like it when people don’t take personal responsibility for their lives.
  3. I don’t like supporting the cigarette industry in any way.
  4. I don’t like being manipulated into pity.
I'd probably give this guy $4.

I do, however, believe in social justice and giving the poor a chance, so my rule of thumb is that I will gladly give food to any beggar. Most beggars ask for food, so if they want to put their money where their mouth is, I’ll give it to them. I once gave a beggar sushi. He actually looked pretty happy about it.

Yesterday I read an article by a reporter who decided to test the suspicion that beggars use money for booze, drugs, and cigarettes by offering $50 and $75 prepaid VISA and MasterCard gift cards to five beggars in Toronto. He tracked their purchases online and wrote this amazing article about it.

He also offered a slight twist–he asked people to return the cards after they purchased what they said they needed (i.e., a warm meal). In a way, he was putting the morality of beggars to the test.

The results? Three of the five cards were used for booze or cigarettes. One was used for a small meal, and the other was never used. So in a way, my suspicions were confirmed.

At the same time, I want to test St. Louis beggars using the same trackable gift cards (in smaller increments). What do you all think–is it worth my $25 to give 5 beggars $5 gift cards?

40 thoughts on “Beggars Can Be Choosers”

  1. I think it is. I’d like to hear the results of this test in St. Louis. I have the same assumptions about our city’s homeless population, and I’d like to know if I’m mistrusting their intentions for a good reason or not.

    • Okay, I can see that. I was moreso thinking that (a) I can’t afford to hand out a bunch of $20 gift cards and (b) I’m really curious about the FIRST purchase they’d make–what they consider the most dire need. But I could be flexible on the amount.

      • Wait a second, you were willing to give like $50 for a new idea to that website a couple months ago and now you’re thinking anything more than $5 is getting expensive? $10 to 5 people would be the same amount 😛
        Don’t do $20 gift cards, I think $10 on each is good. If they are going to buy cigarettes or booze instead of food then they still will. I think $10 because that can buy a decent meal, which would promote them to be honest, but it’s also tempting enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. $20 equals going out and having a field day, too much to give to them.

        • I recently learned that the idea website (Quirky) lowered their submission fee to $10…I still need a good idea to submit, though 🙂

          $10? I could see that or $15. One commenter mentioned to me that I should set up a PayPal link for readers to donate to the idea. I’ll do that on tonight’s entry, and I’ll match the contributions and distribute the cards in denominations of $10 or $15 (maybe I’ll put up a poll).

  2. I think it is a brilliant idea, and I would gladly contribute to the project. I also agree with John that it needs to be at least $15. With tax, you can’t even get a footlong sandwich at subway for $5.

    Finally, I think it matters where you select your recipients from. There is a woman who stands at the corner of Forsyth and Skinker who has carried a “pregnant, need money” sign for significantly more than 9 months. But there is a also a guy who routinely camps out at the Lindell light in front of the history museum. I believe he is not homeless, just unemployed – and he has been really appreciative of food I’ve given him. I would predict different reactions from individuals who are chronically homeless compared to those who are in need due to the recession.

  3. I’m way too suspicious of people to do this, but heck if it’s your money then we should definitely do this lol. Agree with John and Ariel, have to make the amount a little higher due to food costs. I think I would be nosy and ask them specifically what they needed the money for instead of just trusting they are going to use it for food or whatnot. I like getting the full story first, if they said food, I might ask where. If the pregnant lady said she needed money, I might ask how my money would help her. Would it be to stock up early on diapers, would it be to buy some onesies, etc. I don’t get to encounter homeless people or beggars around here really, guess I’m in the wrong area.

    Would you be more willing to give someone money if they said it was to buy their cat some food? What about if they had a cute picture to show you?

    • I think you have a good point–at the very least, I could write down what their cardboard sign says (food, diapers, etc) and see if that’s actually how they spend their money by checking the account online later. I’d also tell them how much is on the card–the guy who ran the Toronto experiment didn’t do that.

      If a homeless person held up a sign with a cute kitten on it (“Will work for kittens”?), I’d be pretty compelled to give them something. I should have talked about this more on the post–my take is that if you’re just going to sit there all day instead of trying to find work, the very least you can do is write a funny sign. No one believes the BS they put on their signs anyway–why not have fun with it and make someone smile?

  4. I like Amanda’s thoughts about asking the person questions. At the very least you have had a conversation and maybe that is worth something to the person. I have know a friend that brought 2 bag lunches to the corner and sat down and share food and conversation with the person. As for the experiment, I think it is very noble… go for it ! and then not only post a blog but submit it to the newspaper.

    • Oooooo! Yes I like submitting it to the newspaper as well as blogging about it! There’s probably more people out there that wonder about giving the beggars money, it would help reach more people than just the blog readers. Very nice idea!

  5. My dad does a thing we call bum bags. Basically it’s non-perishable food in big ziploc bags that are a meal (tuna, fruit cups, juice bottle, graham crackers etc.) You might consider to do that instead of spending money on visa cards for an experiment. I mean, the concept is interesting, but I do wonder if the experiment money is better spent giving food for sure than seeing what they purchase. If you do go through with the cards, I agree it needs to be more than $5. And I really want to know what the perennial pregnant woman purchases.

    I do think that the jobless people are less now, at least out here. The homeless population here is insanely large. There’s a ton of programs, which I think is why. I think supporting one of the programs is a much better use of money/time in the homeless world out here. But not every city has comprehensive shelters and ‘get a job again’ programs. Here they offer a lot, even psychological help and a free medical clinic every so often. I wish they offered showers and laundry facilities though… it can get pretty stinky on every street corner!

    • Giving food is a nice thought, but I was under the assumption that Jamey was testing the integrity of these people since he hates being lied to, manipulated, etc. I think Jamey just giving them food wouldn’t show him the data he’s questioning.
      Your dad sounds very kind, that’s a nice way to ensure that these people have food at least for a day 🙂

      • Amanda hits the nail on the head here–I’m testing the integrity of beggars and challenging my own assumptions about them.

        Another reason to not put too much money on these cards is that the beggars may not even use them. That article suggested that some beggars were suspicious of the cards–they thought it was a trick. That was interesting for that article, but for this purpose I’d really want the cards to be used.

        • I understand the experiment and its purpose, I just think it might be better to spend the money on something else that actually guarantees helping the homeless person (food) instead of just doing a test for your own self-satisfaction.

  6. A few thoughts:

    *So you can track purchases made using a pre-paid gift card? Are the expenses itemized specifically enough that you’ll actually know what was purchased? (I’m thinking, for instance, what if somebody spends $10 at the nearest gas station. Will you get any indication if they bought food, beer, cigarettes, etc.?)

    *Make sure you have good intentions and have thought through the possible outcomes with this. That is, don’t just do this to satisfy your curiousity, have a purpose behind it. Let’s say that purpose is “inform my blog readers on how to effectively give money to help the homeless.” If your little experiment shows lots of “good” uses of the money, how will you portray the beggars you encounter and will you recommend that your readers give to beggars? Likewise, if there is significant dishonesty and/or questionable usage of funds, how will you portray those involved, and how will you recommend your readers help the homeless?

    *Remember that these folks are people, too, and you should avoid jumping to conclusions about their situation or ethics without knowing their circumstances just as much as you would any other non-begging member of society. Remember, you could just as easily go into a bar that promotes “world’s best burger” and argue that it’s far from it, but I’d guess many people would be much more eager to take that commercial statement with a grain of salt than to avoid looking down upon the person behind the dubious claims of your local cardboard sign holder.

    • Some great points and questions here Bob.

      1. This is a great question. I’m going to buy a prepaid card tomorrow to see how detailed the results are.

      2. I think there’s some judgment behind the word “good” that you use here–“good” is relative, isn’t it? The point of this experiment is to challenge the assumptions of people like me who think that beggars use donations for booze and cigarettes. If the results indicate that those assumptions are wrong, then people like me might be more open to giving a dollar or two to people in need. If those assumptions are correct, then people may be less likely to support self-destructive habits of beggars.

      3. Exactly. The whole point of the experiment is get data so that I don’t have to jump to conclusions or make assumptions anymore.

      • Thanks for your responses to my comments.

        The “good” I’m getting at is this: If all your revealing that many beggars use the money they receive to pay for vices (which wouldn’t surprise me — this assumption is the reason I give to organizations that help the homeless rather than to the homeless directly) does is “kick a man while he’s down” by making us non-panhandlers feel morally superior, then your experiment and subsequent writing about it likely does some harm.

        Finally, I have only skimmed the latest comment from the currently unnamed critic, but let me express an element of unease of mine that I think they hit upon to some degree, too: “experimenting” on people who do not know they are being experimented upon and then publishing the results. I don’t know how precise this analogy is, but this is somewhat akin to your IT manager deciding to, without notice, conduct an unnanounced survey of the websites a religious center’s employees are visiting and then publishing the results afterwards to see if there’s any juicy stuff. I would think that you, unless made explicit to the contrary by your employer, would have an assumption of privacy on your browsing habits, even though it is your employer who provides you the computer and internet connection. Likewise, unless you explicitly tell each panhandler “I will be monitoring and possibly publishing the transactions made on this card I am giving you,” there is some element of deception going on, and one you consider whether you are using these folks for the sake of what you’d write about it afterwards.

        PS – Put me down for 10 bucks to whatever homeless services organization you deem worthy as you venture into this project.

        • I think that’s a great point that the beggar should be aware of the purpose of the card. That way they’re opting into the experiment at the gain of money and the loss of privacy (if they so choose). I wouldn’t want to violate that–although I think the Toronto reporter did.

          Hmm…I see what you’re saying about kicking a man while he’s down. This certainly isn’t about superiority. In fact, what I generally feel when I’m approached by a beggar is guilt. Guilt that I’m wearing clothes and shoes and that my stomach is full and that I have a roof over my head. And then pity for the person who does not. Neither of those feelings seem particularly healthy to me. I feel sabotaged by my own feelings, and sometimes that’s a result of the beggar’s sign. I mean, what are you supposed to feel when a stranger tells you that they need food to feed their 2-year-old? There’s something icky about them putting that on everyone who drives by instead of just going to a shelter where I guarantee they’ll help that child (if there is a child). I think that’s why the human side of me likes funny signs–in their own way, they make the whole situation less awkward, in my opinion.

          • When I see someone on the street corner with a sign, I immediately look to see if I have cash on me. In fact, I started carrying a small amount of cash in my car’s console for the guys at intersections. Do I think the smart thing to do with the money would be to buy food or clothes? Of course I do. However, it doesn’t bother me one bit if they spend it on so-called vices. Heck, I’ve given money to homeless people outside of a liquor store and didn’t even think twice about it.

            How many of us come home from a hard day at work and chill out with a cold beer?

            How many of us get into a stressful situation and immediately light up a cigarette? (Yes, I know you don’t Jamey)

            Imagine that you are homeless and living on the street. Do you think you would have some hard days and stressful situations? I don’t think office politics and my son refusing to go to bed compare to living out on the streets.

            If anyone deserves a drink and a smoke, the homeless do.

            If my money can help them feel a little better tonight while I am in my house, eating dinner with my family, then I’ll gladly give what I can.

            • I think that’s very generous of you, right down to having the extra money in your console for such occasions. It’s a good thing there is people like you in the world, because I sure am not that kind. I do have some questions for you if you’d be so accommodating as to answer them for me that’d be great.
              I am a firm believer that you should do whatever you please with your own money, but why would you just hand out your hard earned money to someone who you think would use it in ways you don’t condone? Yes everyone has “those days” when life is rough and they need vices, but why do you feel it’s your place to supply them with the money? You work hard for the money to supply yourself with your vices, why not expect them to do the same? Giving them money for food, clothes, necessities is one thing, the vices is quite another.
              Why is being homeless more stressful than other issues people may have? Just because someone has a roof over their head, it shouldn’t make their stress less significant. There are people living in homes that may be beaten, raped, degraded, etc. on a daily basis. Wouldn’t their stress be as significant or even moreso than someone who is homeless?
              If you feel so charitable, why not give your money to an organization that directly helps to supply food, clothes and safe places for homeless persons to go? Wouldn’t you at least want your money to be used for something halfway helpful as opposed to these vices which are temporary fixes to the stressful situations?
              Loved your comments, Carl. You really got me thinking about my own personal convictions, love it 🙂

              • Thanks for the questions. Apologies in advance for the wall of text below.

                I hand over the money I can spare to people who need it with the expectation that they will spend it on something that fulfills a need. Those needs may be physical, emotional, mental, psychological, base, etc. I just don’t worry about which need they choose to fill. A one-time “handout” isn’t going to save anyone from poverty, even if they buy sensible food and clothing. In those cases, I am just offering comfort, and I am not about to judge people based on what comforts them. I do give food when I happen to have some available. Usually this happens when I am leaving the grocery store and see someone around the building. I have no problem going back in to replace a few items. I have even taken a few into a fast food joint and bought whatever they wanted. Occasionally I’ve run into an employee who gives me grief about bringing “one of those people” in their restaurant, but occasionally I’ve encountered managers who give extra food at no charge. But I don’t drive around with food in the car on a regular basis. I should put together the food bags as described by another commenter.

                As for being homeless and stress: I have never met a homeless person who was just homeless. All those problems that you mention that people have who aren’t homeless are their problems too. The difference, in many cases, is that those who aren’t forced out onto the streets due to those issues often have resources that they homeless do not. If nothing else, they often have the means to call for help. The homeless men and women that I have encountered often suffer from various illnesses (mental and physical), are uneducated, and have been victimized over and over again. Couple that with the fact that they have no place to go, no refuge from the world. So yes, I believe that the homeless have more stress in their lives than most people. As for those who aren’t homeless and have similar stresses, I have been in their homes with them and by their sides as well. First as a social worker and then as a teacher at a school with more than 85% of the students on free and reduced lunch programs.

                I do donate time and money to homeless shelters and other organizations. Up until a recent cross country move, I regularly spent time working with the families at a program called Family Promise (google it, it’s a great program). Through that program, I have known families that came in from the streets, got the help they needed to get back on their feet, and regain some permanence in their lives with an apartment and jobs. We had space for 3-5 families in the program. Unfortunately, our program had a waiting list of 47 families when we moved away. We had 10-15 families come in seeking help every single day. Of those 10-15 families we turned away, perhaps 5 found space in the other local shelters for the night. And many, many more never came to our program looking for help in the first place, so the numbers I am giving you barely scratch the surface. All of this was in a city of less than 200,000 people.

                I guess the big question, however, is why do I give what I work hard for to people who don’t. The answer is simply that I give what I do because I can. My family has what it needs. We have a home. We have the food we need. We have clean clothes to wear every day. We have a working vehicle to get us where we need to be. We have health insurance with low deductibles. We have money in savings. We are slowly building towards retirement, but we’re young enough that we will get where we want to be when we want to be there. On the other hand, we don’t have a big screen tv. We don’t eat out very often. We buy our clothes at Target. We clip coupons. We play boardgames and read books for entertainment. That leaves us with “disposable income” that could go towards any number of luxuries. Occasionally we dispose of it to buy things. But more often, we choose to give it away to those who don’t have the things we do instead of throwing it away on the things we don’t need.

  7. I find this whole experiment incredibly distasteful, particularly from someone who works for a Catholic student center, an organization whose mission in part seeks to help the disadvantaged — not to exploit them for personal amusement. What exactly are you trying to prove here? That some panhandlers are not forthcoming with their intentions? That some panhandlers are likely to spend money on alcohol, cigarettes, and the like? I think most people recognize that these questions can be answered affirmatively for at least some panhandlers. And, even if your experiment bears out these results (or different ones, for that matter), your sample size is much too small to yield any significant data.

    What I find particularly appalling is the dehumanizing undertone in your description of “beggars” and your experiment. You say, “my take is that if you’re just going to sit there all day instead of trying to find work, the very least you can do is write a funny sign.” You also suggest that panhandlers are merely lazy, choosing to beg rather than to seek employment. Again, although this may be true of some panhandlers, a large proportion of the homeless population suffers from mental illnesses. Others, I imagine, lack a meaningful education or access to the resources necessary to find housing or work. These so-called “beggars” are people, deserving of respect and dignity.

    If you do not wish to give money to panhandlers for fear that it may be used improperly, then simply don’t. There are obviously other avenues for charitable work — from soup kitchens to shelters for the homeless to job outreach. But to subject people who are already suffering to an experiment for your amusement and blog hits is simply unconscionable. If panhandlers sometimes display a lack of honesty, your post demonstrates far worse: a lack of empathy.

    • Thanks for the comment–it’s a bit aggressive, and it’s anonymous (my blogging rules dictate that if you’re going to comment, you use your name), but I think you raise some good points. If you reply to this comment without a name, though, your comment will be removed (especially since you know where I work, which is odd, because I never mention where I work on this blog. Also, please read the CSC’s mission. Our mission is to serve the students, not the disadvantaged. Serving the inequities of the world is more of a general Catholic thing).

      1. I am absolutely not exploiting beggars for personal amusement. I don’t see how you could have possibly read that from my post.

      2. As noted in a comment above, as well as in the post, the reason for the experiment is as follows: “The point of this experiment is to challenge the assumptions of people like me who think that beggars use donations for booze and cigarettes.” I agree that the sample size is small–it would be small even if I handed out 100 gift cards. But it’s a start. And it’s not like the beggars lose in this situation. They’re getting prepaid cash cards!

      3. I’ll stand by what I said about the sign. Plus, research shows that beggars who are creative with their signage earn more donations than those who don’t.

      4. I’m really not seeing how you read in my post that I don’t consider beggars people. Can you help me understand where you’re coming from there? The only possibility I see is that I repeatedly use the term “beggar” instead of “homeless” or “unemployed.” I could have used “panhandler,” but for some reason that term seems antiquated to me. I think there is a negative connotation associated with “beggar,” but that certainly wasn’t intended here. I was simply talking about a person who asks for money on the street.

      5. At the heart of your comment, I’m reading that you’re appalled that I seem to display a lack of empathy for beggars/panhandlers. I must admit, as a high T on the Myers-Briggs, empathy is something I struggle with. I have a really hard time finding compassion for anyone who expects handouts. And yes, every homeless person/beggar/panhandler has different circumstances that I know nothing about. That’s not the topic that I discussed on my blog today. My blog entry was about the assumptions that I make about beggars and how I can find a quantitative way to challenge those assumptions. Am I really hurting someone by doing this? That’s the tone of your comment.

      I knew the second that I wrote this blog entry that some people wouldn’t like what I had to say, and I’m glad you spoke up. I think you could use a little coaching on how to present an opposing argument, especially about something as sensitive about this topic, but I appreciate your comment anyway. However, as you can see from the URL, I have the guts to put my name out there despite the sensitivity of this comment. I expect the same of other people who contribute to this conversation. If that doesn’t feel right to you, feel free to e-mail me directly. I will completely respect your privacy.

    • Wow, just calm down a second. First of all, I don’t think it’s right to throw someone’s job(how did you find out his job anyway? I was looking for it all over the net and couldn’t find it when I tried)in their face. It’s a job, he’s paid to work there, even if it does have a good mission behind it. Would you have thrown it back at him or even mentioned his job if he was a male stripper or a gas station attendant? I think not.
      I never got the feeling that he dehumanized them, if anything he’s showing empathy by even thinking about them in the first place. Plus they are going to get giftcards or whatever, so technically both sides are winning. The less fortunate are going to get a good meal, and Jamey is going to get questions answered by a small amount of people.
      Would you feel better if he walked up to someone less fortunate and asked them why they are there? I would think that would make the person feel worse. If I was homeless/beggar and some pretty boy fancy pants like Jamey came up to me and asked me why I was begging, I can guarantee you I’d feel way worse than if he offered me a moneycard for a meal or my cat’s food.
      I think most people are naturally suspicious of others’ intentions, so I can see how his idea might come across as appalling at first, but if you look into it he’s done his homework. He checked out that other study, he thought about the questions he wanted answered, he decided how to distribute the money, and he even thought about how to conduct his experiment so everyone wins and no one feels hurt or ashamed. It’s not like he’s going to walk up to someone, laugh at them, call them names and then hand them a card, he’s going to be respectful and civil about it.

  8. i don’t know, jamey. it’s a tricky one here. i would agree with some of the other posters that i find what you propose a bit odd, though i wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that you’re being dehumanizing. yours certainly is an intriguing idea, but there does seem to be some moral complexity to the issue. i guess i would ask, were i to ask, what you gain from it all. as you say, you challenge your assumptions about the homeless and you challenge their collective moral compasses(compi?) –a very fair and purposeful goal indeed. but……so what? perhaps if you made this part of a larger goal i could see a little clearer the bigger picture. b/c as it stands now, it seems to my untrained eye that you simply satisfy a curiosity for the sake of being in a position to satisfy it.
    of course there’s nothing wrong with that. i’m just sayin….

    • Interesting point, but I’m trying to understand what you mean by the larger goal.

      Perhaps what you’re getting at is, so what if I have assumptions about beggars? Shouldn’t I get over that–I mean, assumptions are generally a pretty bad thing. So why not just put aside my assumptions and either give or not give (or continue to give food), and make that a private decision that I don’t talk about on my public blog?

      I think I was really just intrigued by the article I linked to in this post. It seemed like such a neat concept, and it didn’t seem like he was hurting anyone.

      • what i was getting at was—so what if your theories about the homeless turn out to be true or are completely inaccurate. what do you do with what you learn? maybe nothing. but that’s what i was getting at.

  9. I say do it, it’s not hurting anyone, it’s not violating any laws, and you’re not the only one who questions beggars’ integrity. Really, you’re helping them, you’d be giving them funds for a meal, for one day they would have a full tummy and feel like someone cared enough to stop and help them. So what if you get an assumption answered in the process? Both sides would win. Your bigger picture could be something along the lines that even though they are beggars, they are just as honest as “normal” people so maybe the next time someone walks by them, that person will give the beggar a second thought and be more comfortable with assisting them.

  10. Carl–thank you for your amazing comments above. I like that you present the way you live your life without judgment or aggression towards others who make different choices in how they approach homeless people/panhandlers/etc. In doing so, I was really moved by your approach. I particularly liked your answer to the question you posed (a question I’ve posed many times myself): “Why do I give what I work hard for to people who don’t?” As simple as your answer is (“because I can”), it makes sense. I mean, why do I hold doors open for the person behind me? Not because I need to, but because I can. I think these small acts of kindness add up and hopefully make the world a better place. Thanks for doing your part, and thanks for taking the time to share the way you live your life on my blog.


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