Yet more evidence why you shouldn’t give money to panhandlers

I’ve worked with the homeless and indigent as a church volunteer, and later as a pastor, for many years.  It was almost always my experience that those who begged for handouts on the street would use the money to buy alcohol or drugs, not food or clothing or something worthwhile.

One of the more telling ways to find out whether someone really needs help is to offer them assistance in kind rather than in cash.  When serving as a pastor, I was many times asked for help by someone needing money to “buy food for my family” or “buy gas to get back home to [wherever]” or “buy clothes so my kids can go to school”.  When I’d offer to buy the food/gas/clothes for them, and give them the merchandise rather than the money, in more than nine cases out of ten the offer was declined – in fact, more than a few of them actually insulted me, demanding cash instead.  (Needless to say, they didn’t get it.)

Now comes news that an Oklahoma City man lost his temper with an elderly lady who asked him for money.  He gave it to her . . . then saw her driving off in a new car.  He was understandably outraged, and confronted her.  (Language alert – he’s not polite.)

I note from the report:

“the elderly woman’s family … said their grandmother has a panhandling permit and ‘isn’t doing anything illegal’.”

To which my reaction is, so what?  Legal or illegal, she’s still a fraud!

I can only repeat the advice I used to give as a pastor:  give your money to a charity that you trust to use it wisely to help those in need.  My #1 favorite in that regard is the Salvation Army, which has very low administrative overhead and uses most of what it receives for its work.  It’s very careful not to dispense cash or easily-sold items to those who’ll abuse the gift.

Beware of charity scammers:  there are an awful lot of them out there.  Also, beware of ‘umbrella’ charity organizations such as the United Way, the American Red Cross or Catholic Charities.  Some of the purposes and lower-level organizations they support are worthwhile, but others may be morally or ethically objectionable to you (some of them most certainly are to me!).  Furthermore, they often use an unconscionable proportion of funds raised for internal expenses and administrative overhead (including exorbitant salaries for their top management).

Instead of giving to an ‘umbrella’ body, which then decides for itself how your money will be used, I strongly suggest giving instead to a focused, single-purpose charity that works for needs and in places that you consider important.  This will ensure that your donation is used for purposes of which you approve.  Yes, it takes more effort to research such charities and make sure they’re what they say they are, but that’s part of being a responsible citizen, IMHO.



  1. I am not sure how it is everywhere, but our annual drive is for our local United Way and we can choose a specific agency to direct our payroll deduction towards. Also, accountants from my employer volunteer their time to audit the local United Way. The national organization gets a very deserved bad reputation, but the local ones are often different animals all together.

  2. @Jennifer: The trouble with United Way is threefold.

    1. Each member organization contributes a percentage of its earnings to UW. That means even if you choose to support a member organization that meets your ethical and moral standards, it's still forced to contribute to the support of an umbrella organization that also supports others of which you may not approve.

    2. The UW has fairly significant overhead expenses, which are deducted from contributions proportionately. If you want more of your donation dollars to end up with those who most need them, this can be a problem.

    3. the UW includes member organizations that are involved in 'charity' work that I find morally repugnant. Even if I specify that my donation isn't to go to them, their presence imparts a moral 'taint', if I can put it that way, to others who choose to associate with them. That's my opinion, at any rate – YMMV.

    For those reasons, I won't support UW at all.

  3. I *never* give money to panhandlers.

    Numerous times I've been approached because "I'm hungry", and offered to walk them to a restaurant and pay for a meal, and had them get aggressively angry at me.

    I always give to the Salvation Army because as you say, they do the best job.

  4. when I was a young marine at camp Pendleton in the early seventys I would go in to Oceanside to have a libation there was a blind marine vet who sat near the bar with an American legion hat on.i would give him a dollar when I nite I was settin in the bar drinking a beer when the blind vet got up took his shades off walked down the street and got into a caddy and drove away! the next day as I went by I slaped the chit out of him! YOUR FRIEND TRUCKWILKINS

  5. Wifey used to semi regularly go to the type of urban place where there are lots of homeless/ panhandling/ spanging type people. She is kind and actually wants to help people. She would pack 2-3 lunches before the trip. A PB&J Sandwich, an apple, whatever was handy in paper bags and take them along. Many times folks turned them down but sometimes they took em.

    I occasionally give a pan handler some change or a couple bucks. Usually it is after asking them for directions in a strange city or if they are playing semi decent music or are otherwise entertaining. I have no illusions it goes to anything positive and am OK with that.

  6. I'd be more inclined to give money to a skell who was honest and said that he wanted to use it for alcohol or drugs.


  7. @Jennifer:

    The Combined Federal Campaign that UW runs had a scam around named donation. The named donation went against the charities portion of the whole campaign instead of being additional.

    UW is corrupt from top to bottom. The locals are a bit better but still give directly and with no involvement of UW.

    I dropped the CFR when way back it was reported the head of the UW was flying the Concord and had an obscene salary.

    Remember, for most non-profits, what would be profits does not go to the mission but is taken up by the senior executive in salary, travel, benefits, etc.

  8. Yeah, my late wife volunteered at the Sally Anne for years helping feed the hungry. She said she wanted to tithe to them because "the need is so great." I agreed and still tithe to them because they walk their talk.

  9. I do not smoke, but I know that cigarettes tend to be expensive (especially in the large cities, which heap their own local taxes upon those already imposed by the Feds and the states).

    If a shnorrer is smoking a cigarette, I get suspicious. If he or she has a pack of cigarettes, then that gives a 95% confidence level that he or she is a fraud.

  10. Some years ago (20?), a reporter in the LA area tracked a woman who was panhandling with her young daughter. They were living in a large travel trailer at the beach. She was raking in over $300/day. He talked with her, and was told that having a child with her would double her daily take.

    I spent a few hours at a small shopping center, and watched a guy begging at the exit. Saw a woman get out of a nearly new pickup and bring him a bagged lunch. She ate in the truck. Later, he got in and drove off.

    Next time you see a beggar, look at his feet. Most times, they seem to have very expensive gear like top of the line Nike. Also, lots of smokers.

  11. I used to work for Multinational Megacorp, Inc. and was stationed in DC for a while. Each October we'd be herded into a room to watch a United Way video with cherubic minority children and then get the company pitch for "100% participation."

    During one of these tear jerkers I read the 4-color, slick paper "brochure" from UW and noticed one of the agencies in DC being supported was Bon-A-Bond, described as an alternative for those unable to obtain pre-trial release through normal channels.

    Meaning United Way was using our donations to gain release for criminals whom a bail bondsman considered too great a risk.

    From that moment on, my department failed to get its "100% participation."

    I donate directly to charities I've researched and know are on the up-and-up, sometimes with money, sometimes with material goods and/or food, sometimes with my time.

    A very good indicator of a charity's worth is, as JKB above, pointed out, is what percentage of its "take" goes to feathering its own nest; more than roughly 15% and it's a fair bet it's a "charity business" rather than a true charity.

  12. There are lots of scammers,gypsies and panhanders in Paris in the summer. On every corner you can find a woman with children "camping out" on the street. The problem is that they are all clean, look well fed and the kids are playing with new toys!

  13. I've had a rule for years. Like Ironrailsironweigts, I find myself more inclined to give to a beggar who says he wants money for drink/smoke. Maybe it isn't the very best for them, but it has lead to chatting acquaintance with a couple of real characters, both of whom were too old and set in their ways for me to realistically expect them to change much.

    I've lived in a couple of cities where the local United Way org had a serious scandal break while I was there. So far as I'm concerned they can piss up a rope and stand under it while it dries.

  14. JKB is correct. I was involved in UW agencies in two cities (not at the same time!) and both had the same policy: If the UW gurus said the agency was to get $10K and you designated say $1K of your personal 'participation' to go to that agency, then your donation was part of the total-the agency would get only the amount UW allocated.

  15. Participated in and was a team lead on Combined Federal Campaign for most of my 20+ years in the USN. One of the things I learned early on was to look for the % numbers next to each organization. That was how much of each dollar went to overhead costs. Some like Boy Scouts and my favorite Rails to Trails Conservancy had 2-5%, others like United Way were in the 50%+ category and or donated to things I disagreed with. 100% participation was always the goal but with a little research it was possible to avoid the bad ones.

  16. Here in Spain the best charity to support is Caritas. It is associated with/run by the Catholic Church which may be a problem for some people, but it is generally a very transparent volunteer organization. Certainly without them there would have been street riots in major cities by now, given the economic situation.

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