Today is Outreach Thursday, and this question comes up a lot, so let’s tackle it first. Should a Christian give money to panhandlers?
This is a complex issue. On the one hand we have the divine compulsion and inward desire to help those who need our assistance (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 6:27-36), while on the other we worry that our generosity will be misspent on things that are more harmful than good (like drugs or alcohol).
So what should we do? After some reading and talking to experts, I’ve concluded that giving cash to people on the street is not a good way to help them. The best way is to support local programs (InnerCity, Food Bank, etc.) which are designed to serve their needs, and have the expertise to deal with those who seek to abuse the system. I talked to one inner city program leader who said he wishes people would give less money to panhandlers so they would be forced to participate in the programs set up to help them best.
That said, I remember a time when a young, pregnant woman stopped me in the parking lot of the Home Depot and asked me for some money so she could buy a burger at the McDonalds. Did I send her away to find an official program? No, I gave her enough to buy a combo. Did I follow her to make sure she got the burger? No. Do I regret giving her the money? No. Would I do it again? Yes.
I believe that we must be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16) in these matters, and that means educating ourselves about local poverty issues, encouraging our churches to support local programs, and praying for wisdom so we don’t fall prey to those who would abuse Christian charity. However, when faced with an ‘extreme situation’ like the young woman at Home Depot, we must trust the Holy Spirit within us and err on the side of generosity.
What do you think? Have you thought about this before? How have you helped panhandlers and homeless people in the past?