What are your rules for giving on the street?

January 10, 2020 at 10:39 am (By Amba) (, )

In this country with its ever more “shredded social safety net” (in the words of an article I just linked), we are largely taking care of each other, dollar by dollar. Leave home, where your inbox is full of pleading worthy causes and GoFundMes, and every walk down the street is a gantlet of accostments by need, and every subway ride has an audio track of homeless disabled veterans’ pitches and amplified mariachi or rap performances. If you can indulge yourself in a $5 latte and don’t worry about having a roof over your head, you can feel like part of the problem. But if you relented for every charity busker, street musician, and panhandler, you’d soon need food stamps yourself.

What are your unwritten rules for when to give or not give, or do you rely on mood or spontaneous response?

I broke one of my own rules yesterday, which made me realize that there are rules (a necessity to sort out the chaos and resist the giant sucking sound of a society circling the drain) and wonder what they are.

I am now a member of Greenpeace, which I didn’t want to be. (Nothing against Greenpeace, it’s just not on my current list of revolving causes and subscriptions.) Two young people stepped into my path on the way home from karate and asked if I cared about climate change. I began to make a wide berth around them, my standard practice with those clipboard-toting less-than-minimum-wage makers. Yes, it’s an awful job, but it’s an awful idea to hold hurrying people up and shake them down in public. 

I was giving them my usual surly, “Yes, but I don’t do this on the street” when the young woman gestured at the young man and said, ‘It’s his first day. I’m training him. You’d be his first.'” Well, that was too auspicious—for both of us—to pass up.

They looked to be in their 20s. She was small and pixieish, with short blond hair, skim-milk skin, a twice-pierced nose, and long glitzy fingernails that forced her to tap her tablet with the sides of her fingers—a mash-up of punk and Walmart cashier. He was tall, rugged, with an inert handshake (shy but resigned to this insult to his introversion), biracial or mildly black. He gave his pitch well, and with real conviction. They both gave the impression that they not only needed the job but cared about the cause.

They showed me a “report card” of the various 2020 candidates’ climate policies. Bernie got A+; Warren, Steyer, and Booker, A–. They proudly said Greenpeace itself had talked Biden up from a D to a B+. Buttigieg and Gabbard got solid B’s. Klobuchar and Yang were C+, Bloomberg D+. Trump of course got an F (we agreed the F was for the rest of us). The girl said Bernie was her first choice, Warren second. I suddenly loved these fresh young people and wondered if Greenpeace, a “mature” charity with (perhaps) a well-paid CEO and a top-heavy bureaucracy, deserves or is just exploiting them.

The form on their tablets signs you up for a recurring monthly donation, and the default suggestion is $25. No way! I suggested $10. She said their minimum is the desired minimum wage: $15. So I signed up for that. I can support Greenpeace for a few months and then opt out.

This made me think about my rules more generally.

  • I always give to street and subway musicians (most of whom, as Polly points out in the comments, are aspiring, not necessarily starving, artists) if they move me; they’re working for a living and it’s a helluva better entertainment budget than a subscription to Lincoln Center.
  • I tend to give to panhandlers who seem depressed and don’t have the heart for a polished pitch. I’ll sometimes walk half a block past them and turn back. Conversely, I’ll often give to panhandlers who unfailingly say “God bless you” even to those who won’t look at them. That works on me.
  • I tend NOT to give to hardened, able-bodied coin-shakers or the guys who open the bank door for you. They’re imposing themselves and it’s annoying.
  • I’ll sometimes give to a young homeless person with a dog or a cat if the animal looks well-treated and devoted. (There used to be an older man sitting on the West 4th Street subway stairs who exploited kittens. He always had a fresh box of them to attract donations. I shudder to think what he did with them when they got too old to be super cute. We ratted him out to the precinct a couple of times before he gave that up.)

And what gets you to break your unwritten rules? A little middle-aged man said he was hungry and asked me for a dollar for a hot dog or hamburger—”I’m going right over to McDonald’s”—and I gave him two. Why? I think because he came up close and mumbled his request as if it were a confidence. He got enough inside my personal space (without aggression) to make the appeal personal. I gave him two bucks, and, in plain view, he turned around and scuttled right into the CVS! All I could think was, What on earth can he get over-the-counter in there that will ease his craving?

And what’s with the guy who sits with a huge water jug and singsongs tirelessly, “One penny is all we ask. A fellow human being should not go hungry”? What’s his story? Is he the “fellow human being” he’s talking about? And if not, who are his beneficiaries? It’s a mystery. I suppose I could ask.

There are endless stories of these uneasy encounters between those inside and outside society’s privileged shelter. It renews my admiration for the courage of my friend Sachiko Hamada, who, in the 1980s, involved herself in the lives of a community of homeless people and made an award-winning film about them. It’s called Inside Life Outside.


  1. Polly said,

    Most of your rules make sense. However, most street musicians are probably NOT homeless beggars! It’s a chance to perform and they get heard more than if they were playing in a bar.

  2. amba12 said,

    Yes, I should correct that impression because I know it.

  3. Eveie said,

    When a person usually a male asks me for money because they’re hungry, I tell them I’ll buy them a meal. I’ve had them get annoyed and say no, they’d like the money. in that instance I surmise they probably want it for drugs or drink. In that case I tell them, “Look, I’m not going to help you kill yourself so if you don’t want food, forget it.” Many times I see people begging or just holding an I’M HUNGRY sign. I’ll go into a restaurant and buy them a meal and just walk over and give it to them. They are usually surprised and grateful. I can usually tell real hustlers so I basically don’t give cash at all. The only times I do give cash is when the person is elderly and the appear to be asking for money because they are poor. They may be homeless or very low income. I do not give in cases of obvious addictions except for food. In the cold I’ve given people my gloves, scarf on more than one occasion. I have given brand new hats, scarves, gloves etc… I’ve bought a brand new puffer coat for an elderly homeless woman who was quite mentally ill. The coat she had was pinned with several safety pins. I talk to them and ask them their name and ask them if I can pray for them. They have names, and it’s not HOMELESS…I want to let them know I’m interested in who they are and also tell them my name as well. In hot weather I many times give them a bottle of cold water. I rarely give to street musicians and also when I see someone begging holding a cigarette i do not give, because it’s also another addiction I’m not contributing to. That’s been my general method for years. In my neighborhood on several occasions I saw a homeless person while I was looking out of the window, I immediately make them a sandwich, wrap it and put it in bag with fruit and couple bottles of water; I run outside quickly and find them if they’ve gotten a few blocks away. They are always thankful.

  4. amba12 said,

    ❤️ You know, you love, you’re the best.

  5. amba12 said,

    Another friend wrote me to say I was much too soft a touch, that “This is his first day” was probably a lie. I don’t care. Most of the time I walk past charity solicitors and panhandlers alike without looking at them. Once in a while I do penance by letting my guard too far down for the hell of it.

  6. Polly said,

    I never give to the ones whose cell phone is better than mine.

  7. amba12 said,


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