90.9 WBUR - Boston's NPR news station
Top Stories:
Here and Now with Robin Young
Public radio's live
midday news program
With sponsorship from
Mathworks - Accelerating the pace of engineering and science
Accelerating the pace
of engineering and science
Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Is Change In A Cup The Best Way To Help The Homeless?

A homeless person panhandles in the snow in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

A homeless person panhandles in the snow in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass. on Friday, Feb. 8, 2013.(Jesse Costa/WBUR)

So you come across a homeless person, hand outstretched, asking for money. What do you do?

Do you give money? Do you avert your eyes? Or do you march over to a re-purposed parking meter and put money there for the homeless, as you can do in about 20 cities now?

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, homelessness has been on the rise over the past two decades. But it’s not because of deinstitutionalization, or even addiction.

One-third of homeless people these days are part of families with kids; that’s a nine percent increase since the recession hit.

Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless, says that, like most people, he’s conflicted about whether to give money on the street.

But he thinks re-purposed parking meters aren’t the solution, and he says that cities that have banned panhandling are depriving givers and people in need of the opportunity to see and become more familiar with each other.

More often than not, Donovan says, a homeless person often just wants a simple “hello, how are you?” and a little human interaction.

What are your thoughts on how to help the homeless? Let us know on our Facebook page.


Please follow our community rules when engaging in comment discussion on this site.
  • J__o__h__n

    I’m fine with being deprived of that experience.  It is something I can do without six times a day.  The professional fundraisers should be banned too. 

  • Eric_shanks

    what about institutional panhandling the same corner the same people 8 hours a day for the past 8 years

  • Amanda Beth26

    What about carrying fast food gift cards? That helps make sure your donation goes to food.

  • Shirley Jones

    My suggestions for giving something to a homeless person if you don’t want to give cash, give them a Mcdonalds gift card instead.

  • Bernie0213

    I disagree with your guest completely. I live on Philadelphia and at my neighborhood Wawa, you can go broke giving money to all the panhandlers they’re mostly you g adults, noticeably on drugs and they make outlandish stories to make you feel bad for them.

    My biggest problem is how hard I have to work to earn. All the schooling I up myself through, to the lousy management I put up with at work. I would have no problem giving money for a service such as cleaning my windows on my car, sweeping the front of my house etc. I think panhandling has grown because of the amount of money people get by only asking. Honestly, I work my but off, my job doesn’t give me free money or extra money. Why do they do serve our hard earned dollar??

    • Nicole S.

      I can definitely agree with you on this.  I have had similar experiences.  The best way I’ve come up with dealing with it is to find respectable, reputable charities (preferably tax-deductible ones!) and donate to them.  With the extra resources from your donations, they can see that the help is appropriated where it is needed, and you aren’t handing a drug addict money.  There are websites to use to check if an agency is credible, a good indicator is how much of the money goes to the agency and fundraising and how much goes to the actual mission.  Also, a lot of churches do a lot for the needy in the community, even if you aren’t religious, they can be a good way to contribute.  And tax deductible donations, are always a plus–no explanation needed!!

  • burroak

    Thank you Robin for this mindful conversation about an important topic that seems, at times, shadowlike across American convesations. Your guest, Neil Donovan, is well versed on this subject that will warrant continued discussions across the nation.

  • Shannoncdbr

    I don’t know what the right answer is.  I have a personal experience with homelessness as my father was homeless and died that  way.  I had to find him and help him at various points, it ended up being hopeless.  I also worked as a social worker and saw people who chose to be homeless as well as others who fell on hard times and just needed a leg up.   I guess what I am saying is the situation runs the gamete  and has so many layers.  I just know, it still breaks my heart to this day and my father died 18 years ago.

  • Nicole S.

    I was impressed by the observations and the matters you brought up, such as elimination of human interaction (said from behind a computer screen). Impersonalization is a huge problem, not just in homelessness, but in all aspects of life.  We are kept separated by microchips.

  • Audrey

    We live in a time where more and more people live in what I call a”Fox television Reality”. I was raised to help those with less. I too have been homeless with an infant and a 2 yr. old. I had people who helped me, and I give back now in honor of them. My life since has been so different, I have no needs or wants anymore. I have been blessed. I pick up hitchhikers, bring rail road kids (those who ride the freight trains) to my home for a chance to shower, eat a homecooked meal and to wash their clothes. I have never been scared of these people. Actually some of the people we have helped have written, one for many years now. I will always do as much as I can for those people who have deserve more from society. What kind of a Country are we if we walk by those people who need our help. No one in this Country should be hungry.

  • Jmeynster@gmail.com

    My 19 yo daughter carries soft granola bars in her bag and gives these to homeless. Soft ones because their teeth often can’t handle hard ones.

    • Kip

      maybe a bottle of water also.  There is a lot of sugar even in the soft granola bars, but the thought is very admirable.

  • Bre

    I think it needs to be noted that there’s a difference between an individual asking for money (panhandling) and an agency or group like the Girl Scouts or firefighters that can be monitored, contacted, and held more easily accountable.

  • Sidneydavidchait

    People are often reluctant to give panhandlers money because they might use it to buy alcohol.  If you are an alcoholic you need to drink.  Sure it would be ideal if they quit, but until that time, if they don’t drink they are going to go through severe withdraw.

    • Jasoturner

      Also, alcohol has calories.  I don’t try to judge what the panhandlers do with the money I give them.  I kind of feel like I’m not respecting their dignity if I want to dictate what they can and can’t use the cash for.

  • Amy_Mc

    Homelessness is not a disease, and it does not make a person dangerous or evil. I always lived by the belief that if I am *giving money*, then it is a *gift.* It is not right for me to judge what the recipient is going to do with it after I gift it to them.
    When I found myself homeless and eating at a soup kitchen with my 2 young children this winter after leaving an abusive spouse, I could take comfort in the knowledge that I had not previously allowed myself to judge those who’s situations I knew nothing about.

  • Bc4240

    “Judge not……” just give. If you are compelled to give but you feel you must access whether you are being con-ed or if that money is going to some illicite behavior then you are giving conditionally and for poor type of self gratification. You must confess to youself that giving is self gratifiying and giving with a condition attached turns that self gratfication into an act of potential deciet. So just give and don’ t worry where the money goes.

    • http://www.venturacommenter.org/ Fritzwilliam

      Great comment. People just don’t understand — if it’s your decision to hand out pocket change or even a dollar or two, once you hand over the money it’s no longer yours. If you can’t live with that, then don’t hand out the money, simple as that. No strings. No conditions. Just know that you’re probably doing more good for a fellow human being than you might ever imagine. There are some things that food banks and soup lines don’t hand out — things like aspirin, toiletries, chap-stick, kleenex and a thousand things that a would-be giver takes for granted every night before going to bed and every morning when they rise. “As ye shall do unto one of the least of these, ye do unto Me.”

  • BHA_in_Vermont

    First, people normally don’t give money to Girl Scouts, they buy cookies from the Girl Scouts. The G.S. are selling a product you can choose to buy or not. At least here, they aren’t blocking doorways or harassing people to buy cookies. I don’t consider it panhandling.

    Second, I know that when I hand over money to a Girl Scout, I get cookies in return and they will use the small amount that they get to keep per box to fund their troop’s activities under the guidance of adult leaders. My younger daughter is in her 14th year as a G.S.

    If I give money to one of the many people standing on the median, I have no idea what they will do with it but you can be sure that many more will use it to buy drugs, alcohol or cigarettes than will use it to buy food or clothing.

    I am not insensitive to the plight of the homeless, but I prefer to support them through programs I know will provide needed services rather than another bottle of booze or pack of cigarettes.

    • Robin Y

      I am picking up my many boxes this afternoo. First sign of spring.


  • Shelley

    I spent a great deal of time as a teen working with the homeless and my main takeaway was this: there but for the grace of God go I. We would all so well to remember that the homeless are people just like we are. Just like we are.

  • Catjohn_22

    I missed the beginning, including the part where someone must have suggested that to be consistent and fair in eliminating panhandling would have to include eliminating the sale of girl scout cookies. I’ll go back and listen to the whole show, but I have to say that I don’t find it helpful to make false equivalencies like this in important discussions. Money paid for girl scout cookies is willingly given, the giver gets something in return, and I’m pretty sure that the girls collecting the are not going out and getting high with the funds. I’m not saying that I blame panhandlers for getting high or using money given them however they wish, but I’m criticizing those who interject silliness like this into an otherwise serious discussion.  

  • LD22

    The best way to help them is to direct them to a facility that will house them while also helping them to find jobs, mentor and counsel them, provide free recovery and literacy programs, offer them 3, hot inexpensive meals a day and encourage them to take the necessary actions to get back on their feet. It’s a way that helps them directly, by guiding them there. You can also donate to places like these so you know exactly what your money is being used for. Exodus Place, in Grand Rapid’s MI offers all of this, plus more, for homeless men who enter the facility.

    • rejco

       Exodus Place SLANDERS all the homeless as “CRAZY, ADDICTED, and ALCOHOLICS” and mandates “JESUS SAVES” nonsense & 12-Step religious AA/NA cult  conversions; most men get thrown out or leave due to the  prison-like environment.

      These shelters need to be closed down & the homeless placed in private housing immediately and put to work or qualified for income supports.

  • jeff

    TRICKLE DOWN HOMELESS: The New Homeless are results of forclosure and rent evictions. Their remaining possessions are placed in storage and a family car. Soon the storage war bidding begins as a payment default, and a parking boot is placed on the vehicle while they look for work. Towing now eleminates a place to sleep, and thus the shopping cart is the only transport for the remaining survival possessions and family memorabelia. Individual dignity has been dwindled down to dirty clothes and a backpack.

    Facilities for women are better than most.

    Downtown shelters in Orlando provide for men with a daily fee from $2.00 To sleep on a cement auditorium style floor with no blanket  pillow. No food provided. Group restroom facilities where you better have sandals to walk into. $5. and $6. dollar facilities are available if you can afford them. (Yet you have better facilities)

    A new detox facility is opening soon to replace the mens shelter.  300 plus daily. The new facility will not accept homeless unless they are in the program. Where will the others go.

    Social Security services is across town and requires a $4.50 per day bus pass to go round trip.
    All access is 4 miles in the opposite direction. The local food pantries now only serve one meal per day.  Good will job placement has now moved from Down town,near the High end Mall area to help the educated and new homeless to be.

    The police do a sweep to take in all they can when ever there is an high profile event in town. The new proclimation is no camping. This allows the arrest of individuals sleeping alongside the sidewalks or out of a pedestrian pathway.

    Three arrests and you are trespassed. Immediate 30 days in jail.

    There are three of those meters you spoke of on the next block. If you happen to look real hard…you can find them. The professional panhandlers make the problem for those truly in need.

    Will end there before I really get started.

    I watch the brand new SUV’s pull up on the weekend to had out food and clothing. This is good! Although I often wonder if the magnetic signs stating their organization are left on over the remaining week.
    You be the judge.

  • Catherine

    A good conversation. Check out this program, http://www.chicagoshares.org/, called Chicago Shares, which are vouchers we can give to the homeless, redeemable at local stores, such as Jewel, Dominick’s, and Walgreen’s for items other than alcohol and cigarettes. It’s quite successful here in Chicago, and allows for the personal interaction. Certainly not a solution to the whole problems, but something we can do as individuals when we come across those less fortunate.

  • suzie johnson

    We are a part of a National organization, Family Promise.  The churches in Bozeman Montana with Family Promise work with families to help them with getting jobs, finding housing, and getting their financial life together.  The churches host these families for 3 months and Family Promise works with them daily on their job searches, etc.  We need more monies to go to organizations that can be a Family Promise.

  • Mtoffgrid

    No one wants to address the problem-our financial system and our version of “capitalism” which is our religion, not religion. In a system where most of the wealth is purposely directed to the top 1%, there is always a set of lower classes and they get larger or smaller based on the willingness of the upper class to spread a few crumbs. I know the reasons folks will spout off, but really, in what reality is a basketball player worth more than 1000 other individuals in dollars? The people who provide services, construction, cleaning, maintenance -these folks keep things going so the others can reap their undue rewards. Who says a CEO is worth more than 500 of his employees? It is our value system that is completely askew and will be so long as we believe Harvard educated economists like Ken Hubbard or Larry Summers who only exist to funnel money to the top. The scum always rises to the top in any society. We should not laud people like Carnegie who raped and pillage his way to being rich, we should deride and shame them, no matter what they did with some of the fortune later. The more wealth the few have, the less everyone else has-basic math.

  • Knwldgequest

    I am a white woman aged 55 who was driven out of my job at FedEx as a member of management because I blew the whistle on a team of embezzlers employed at a store managed by a complacent black man who preferred to fly under the radar. Those acting for the corporation on this man’s behalf supplanted paperwork and eliminated other documents that would support their plan to destroy my stellar work reputation because they had an agenda. When corporate America wants to get its way, the little worker bee has not the wings to withstand the hurricane a’comin’ their way.

    That was in 2010 and since then, I have been locked out of collecting unemployment since they manufactured such a tight case, and at my age and in the current economy, I am unable to obtain gainful employment.

    I managed to get my writing accepted on a website providing content for the Internet getting being paid by the broker, which simply means I get a percentage of the price. It is better than nothing and out of what I am making, I contribute to my fellow homeless.

    There is no stereotype for us. WE ARE YOU and you will eventually be here, it is just a matter of time. For anyone to look down upon another out of fear, out of unfair judgment, out of disdain as if getting too close, you might get the ‘homeless’ on you is your failing and you falling short of your humanity.

    I have nothing but disgust for those who turn their backs, turn a blind eye, turn away. You can’t ignore us away and just as this manager who needed to disappear me because I responded to the rampant theft in his store in a responsible manner, you cannot disappear my existence just because I am living in my car.

    It won’t be much longer as I am not in good health, but that does not seem to matter to any community. I have no money for insurance and therefore no money for medical help. The depression grows daily, going beyond my own losses and expanding to include my disgust for all of you who seem to think that someone like me is something to be shunned, dismissed, ignored and ultimately legislated out of your store. I may use your WiFi and choose not to purchase in your store, but you fired me. You put me here. I am not loitering to take advantage of the free service you announce on your front door, yet you go out of your way to demonstrate how uncomfortable YOU are.  There are so few places for women my age and some older than I am studying online to earn a degree to get off the street.

    But until any of you are face to face with the reality, it will remain an ‘us and them’ proposition allowing for those who have to ignore those who have not. I am angry that there are not better controls on the obscene amounts of money that go out to contribute to those who have learned how to use the system. I cannot get medical help, but there are many who do abuse what they are allowed and millions more who have been courted to come to California and get set up with homes and subsidies, no problem. I do think everyone receiving funds should have to take a pee test because that would eliminate 90% of those collecting from the states.

    I have met my share of shysters on the street but they have buckled under what they cannot get by any other means. I am lucky that I can write and earn about $167 a month. There are many who only have begging as a means of survival, and there are those I have offered food to who refuse it because they would rather have the money. It is hard when beggars insist on choosing but I have only one response to that: Life is hard enough when you have means, and when you are completely without them, every now and then you want a moment to call the moment your own and dictate what you do with it. To me, this experience feels very much like a prison sentence. Solitary confinement in the great outdoors.

    Just wait. Everyone will soon have a chance to know what it feels like. This economy is not going to survive this administration. I will be dead soon. I don’t matter. I get that, I really get that.

    • red16

      Knwldgequest, Thank you for your insightful post.  You do matter.  I am sorry you have been wronged.  Even in your difficulties you are thinking of others.  Your resignation is haunting, don’t give up. I hope you can find assistance.  What do you think is the best way for someone to help?

  • Knwldgequest

    oddly enough, I am writing an article about how the land owners in Texas are responsible for caring for their property in a fashion that supports the native wildlife since they are the ones who have displaced or removed what would have otherwise been their  natural habitat, such as growth of grasses and plants or wetlands. There appears to be more attention given to wildlife than human life and this will soon turn as more and more people will find themselves part of the migrant “wildlife’ living on the street as I am.

  • It

    No. I do not give. If you feed a wild animal it will become reliant on it.

    • Knwldgequest

       I only hope that you never need help

    • Innerviewscorp

       “It” ~ your name becomes you.

  • Parlette25


  • Just Solve It

    It all comes down to the fact that giving or not giving is your personal choice. That said, I personally have had tens of thousands of interactions with “homeless” persons over the past two decades. Through these exchanges I have experienced a wide range of emotions: fear, pity, sadness, joy, hope, love, anger, grief, guilt, and the list goes on…here is what I have learned:

    - giving a homeless person money amounts to a very fast exchange that has much more to do with me and my guilt not his or her real situation. I call it a “compassion transaction”. I feel good because I did something. The homeless person feels good for a few seconds. Then it’s back to our respective lives.
    - I chose not to do compassion transactions any more because I believe that these acts enable the persons condition to get worse.
    - True mercy and real compassion are found in connecting with these folks in a meaningful and purposeful way. It’s going beyond the buck, the sandwich or the hug.
    - I got ticked off enough to start an imperative called Solutions for Change which turns the whole homeless response system upside down on its head and solves the problem at the root by going deeper, way deeper, with the person and the community.

    My recommendation is to find that type of imperative in your community and support it with your time, energy or resources.

  • Innerviewscorp

    Those who speak down upon the homeless have chosen to only see the begging aspect of someone they do not know, yet they see no comparison to themselves within that person when they themselves at one time or another have walked into a bank and “asked for money … Why? Because they feel they are valuable enough to “ask another for something they are lacking, which is money (equal concept in many ways.)  Those people, the ones that see no value in human life within those that “are in a needing position, those who pass instant prejudiced (without factual knowledge) condemnation on others they know absolutely nothing about… to me, those who do that, are the very definition of valueless humans.   Homelessness; Its a fear that we’ve all (most) have had at least cross our minds at one time. To think of being in a situation of having no place to go because of a lack of money, is an extreme feeling of helplessness and self-worthlessness combined with self-disappointment that no one can even begin to explain, unless having felt it, having known it, themselves. There are exceptions;  Yes, there are in everything in life, so yes there are those who’s self-damaging choices have left them with nothing, but for the most part, there is a reason for homelessness.  See, there’s a chain of very serious events that one cannot stop easily when those once available monies from employment etc, are no longer affording even basic housing, safety, cleanliness, food, medical, etc.  Someone on this thread has said that most homeless would rather have a hello, or an acknowledgement rather than a hand out … Not true, they want and they need, both, equally. They want to be acknowledged, cared about and helped, yet still respected if possible, because they have found themselves in a position that they cannot, for what-ever, and for every reason cannot rise above easily. The Answer; For Society to first believe it is real, to no longer ignore, and to provide a hand out, while equally a hand, up while also recognizing and demanding that the ones who have found themselves homeless deserve, respect. Because, they do.

  • Barb Anderson

    Good job, Neil.   Neil represents us at NCH strongly and his views are reflective of our organization and our attempts to address the realities of homelessness.  His frankness and foresight are the stuff we need to really get the show on the road and end homelessness, as we know it, it can be done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neinka-Lando/100000980899409 Neinka Lando

    My name is Neinka Lando and I am a Pleiadian light worker. The only way our nation will ever change all of the current situations going on and all of the results and consequences of them is by adopting new ideas tactics and approaches that are a 180 degree turn from all that’s been producing the results we’ve been getting over the last 20 years. Because (Radically different results require radically different ideas approaches and tactics) If the average 1 bedroom A.P.T costs an average of $575 monthly with nothing included and the bills are an average of $400 a month how is a an 18 to 23 year old ever going to make that work without becoming a laboring paid slave for 15 years. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Neinka-Lando/100000980899409 Neinka Lando

    We Pleiadian light workers of the constellation world zodiac find ourselves again and again reminding many that nothing in all the world holds more sacred power against evil than that of the united structured loving family unit.

  • Fran

    I would like to have nonprofits provide free sterilization for all adults in the U.S. or the world, who want it, whether citizens or not.
    I have known so many poor/ homeless /victims/ who say they don’t want to have children, or more children, but they don’t have funds to take action. Some people experience being raped as a continual part of life.

  • rejco

    I saw a homeless veteran begging for change, then called the VA Hotline for a Seattle housing placement for him; I was told by the VA’s phone rep “There’s no housing available for homeless veterans”…I went back to the homeless veterans and gave him a $20 bill.

    The VA is lying to the people, THEY ARE NOT GETTING THE HOMELESS VETERANS HOUSED. The VA & it’s Poverty Pimps are raking in billions that are suppose to house the homeless veterans, but all the homeless veterans get, if lucky, are prison-like human warehousing on 8-hour floor mats & bunk-beds; THOSE ARE NOT HOUSING…they are HELL!

  • rejco

    I was walking downtown Seattle and OMG! I saw housed people PACKED IN BARS, all over the place, DRINKING ALCOHOL….and LOTS OF IT!

    Do you people NOT buy from stores if the clerk is going to use the money from your purchase to buy alcohol when he gets his paycheck on payday (part of the price on store items goes to pay employee salaries)?

Robin and Jeremy

Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

September 15 25 Comments

A Call To Reject Corporal Punishment As Part Of Black Culture

An incident of child abuse by an NFL player has raised questions about the use of corporal punishment as a form of discipline in the African-American community.

September 15 26 Comments

Would You Pay To Get Your Kid Into A Top College?

A San Francisco company charges parents for a consulting package based on the odds their student will get into a certain university, with prices up to a million dollars.

September 12 9 Comments

Senator: Arab Countries ‘Need To Step To The Plate’ In Fight Against ISIS

Mark Begich (D-AK) is one of the few members of Congress speaking out against a key part of President Obama's plan for fighting the Islamic State.

September 12 Comment

Ecuadorian Drilling Damage Inspires Documentary

An American and an Ecuadorian are inspired to help Ecuador heal from decades of drilling and oil spills.