What do I do if someone experiencing homelessness asks for money?

Whenever someone finds out that I work for a homeless ministry, usually the first question they ask me is, “What am I supposed to do with the homeless person asking for money on the side of the road?” 

You all know what I’m talking about. You’re headed home from a long day at work and right before you get to the interstate you see that all too familiar cardboard sign…you don’t even have to read it, you’ve seen it all before.

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You’re faced with a dilemma: rustle around in your car for a couple dollars or continue to stare straight ahead, telling yourself, “If I don’t look maybe he’ll move on”. So what’s the good Christian thing to do—Option A or Option B. Do I give him money hoping he doesn’t spend it on getting high? Or do I act like he doesn’t exist? Is there an Option C??

I’m not going to pretend like I have the perfect answer. I don’t. But I will say that there’s probably something we can take a look at here. In fact I’m going to hold off giving my quick, easily digestible answer and instead talk about the deeper issue; there’s not a quick and easy answer because it’s not a quick and easy problem.

The truth is there is no way to know what “box” the person at your exit fits into, so I can’t give you a one-size-fits-all answer. But I do think this question can unpack something that can really help us make a difference in the lives of others.

How do I help someone experiencing homelessness?

If you’re really looking to help, it’s got to begin with us giving away our most prized possession: time

Giving a $5 bill through a half-cracked open car window with the “God Bless You” receipt is fairly convenient…but the concerns of what a person is going to do with it or whether you’re actually making a difference are completely valid. However, the decision to allow those concerns to deter you from action is just as unimpactful (but equally as convenient). 

The real shot we have at making a difference isn’t always convenient because it often asks us to give of something we don’t always want to—our time.

I learned this lesson the hard way while I was in college. I was on my way to meet with this big name pastor guy to see if I could intern under him and, wanting to make a good impression, I left about 30 mins early. As I pulled off on the exit with about 15 minutes to spare I headed to a gas station to get some mints –as if my chances of getting this internship were contingent on how my breath smelled—and a man met me at the door asking me for some money for food, telling me he hadn’t had anything to eat in days. Well there was a pizza place just a couple blocks away and I thought, “Hey I’ve still got a little bit of time. Let me grab this guy a pizza and I’ll drop it off on my way out”.

So I grabbed my mints, snagged a large Hot-N-Ready pizza, and met back at the gas station to drop the food off. But right before I left, I asked him if there was anything I could pray with him about. Immediately this guy broke down into tears as he started to tell me his whole life story, sparing no heartbreaking details. And right there I was faced with a decision. 

Do I storm off knowing that I helped a little and still make my meeting or do I stay there and listen to this guy? The answer was obvious. We sat right there on the curb and I listened for about an hour as he ate that pizza. I learned something that day that has stuck with me to this day: sometimes just being with someone is more important than what you have to give them.

What should I give someone living on the streets?

So let’s go back to our question…should I give the guy money or just drive away? Well I lean more towards Option C: give them your time. Maybe consider pulling over and having a conversation with them. When you talk with someone you’re giving them way more than just some cash…you’re giving them value. Respect. A voice. And taking the time to be with someone is where the difference begins.