What to give a person holding a cardboard sign
It’s the number one question I’m asked about homelessness: “Should I give money to those people who hold cardboard signs on the street corners?”
I start by telling people that ultimately this is a personal choice. It’s your money and your freedom to give it to whomever you choose. I’ll tell you what I do, but I don’t judge you if you disagree. And really, what you do isn’t nearly as important as how and why you do it.
The second thing I say is that a lot of people I see holding the cardboard signs in Springfield are not actually homeless. That doesn’t mean they are “scammers,” though. If you’re holding a sign on a street corner begging for money, your life isn’t going well…even if your nails are done or you’re holding a Starbucks coffee and talking on a cell phone.
I do not give people cash or gift certificates because I know almost all people panhandling will use the money to buy drugs or alcohol. My money is fueling their addiction, and I hurt for them because this is what their life has come to.
They do not want to be begging on a corner. It also isn’t a situation where “what they do with it is between them and God.” The potential threat of answering to God someday is nothing compared to the hell they’re living every day. Their addiction means they don’t have a choice anymore. A monster has taken over their body and it’s focused on one thing: getting that next high.
If a person is reduced to the humiliation of standing on a street corner holding a cardboard sign for cash, he has nothing left to lose – including his pride. His job, his family, his friends, his education, his health all take a back seat to his addiction. People in this situation aren’t having a good time. They aren’t lazy. They aren’t choosing to beg when they could be living in a nice house with a respectable job.
They want a better life but they can’t see a way out. They are suffering mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Handing them a few dollars feeds their addiction for a short while and pushes them further down.
They need our compassion, not our cash.
If we want to help people, we must make a genuine effort to connect with them as human beings. Talk with them and listen. Support efforts to reach those who are addicted or living in poverty or homelessness and create opportunities for everyone to participate in the community.
There is a person holding that sign, and that person needs respect, love, and opportunity just like us.
Erica Smith is the executive director at Helping Hands of Springfield, an organization that provides shelter, housing, and services to people experiencing homelessness.