Should we give to beggars?

Recently I received an email with the following question:

Should we give to beggars? I've seen a surprising number on street corners in Indy, all with cardboard signs.

On the one hand, I think of: "Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you." - Matthew 5:42

There's also: "For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: if anyone is not willing to work, then he is not to eat, either." - 2 Thessalonians 3:10

This is an excellent question, and I want to answer it publicly. 

In Thessalonians, Paul is more specifically talking about the church supporting insiders financially, whether pastors or others. However, his basic principle is obviously broader. We see a similar principle in Proverbs: "The sluggard does not plow after the autumn, So he begs during the harvest and has nothing." - Proverbs 20:4. 

In Matthew, the context is more specifically about dealing with enemies and people who are making unjust demands upon us. But again, it is clearly applicable to the question of beggars. And we have other verses that are similar as well: “For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’" - Deuteronomy 15:11.

So there is a tension that we have to address. That tension is the tension of using discernment. In other words, there isn't a hard and fast rule that we can follow. Instead, there are principles, and those principles have to be applied with wisdom to the unique circumstances that we face. 

Here are the principles. We must not reward sin of any sort, including laziness. We are to love our enemies. We are to love the poor and needy. Therefore, certainly we are to love our poor and needy enemies. Now, maybe you're wondering why I would imply that homeless beggars are our enemies, but I'm simply trying to be realistic. That's the attitude many people have towards them. We lock our car doors when we come up to a stoplight with a beggar. We complain about how they don't work, but we pay taxes and they live off of us. If that's not the way that you feel, great, but many people do. Regardless, we are commanded to love them.

So how do we apply these principles today? It starts by not ignoring the homeless. I'm generally opposed to giving cash to a beggar. I've spoken with people who work directly with homeless people in three different countries: Canada, the USA, and Ethiopia. I've also read people familiar with the homeless situation in this very city of Indianapolis. Everybody says the same thing, and they are very explicit in this: Don't give cash to beggars. It exacerbates the problem, because it teaches them that it pays good money not to work, and it demotivates the homeless who aren't out begging but are trying to find work. In other words, it isn't loving. 

However, who loves the beggar more, the man who gives him a couple of dollars, or the man who never does anything for the homeless, and won't meet their eye when they ask for money? It's easy to be self-righteous and to think highly of yourself because you don't give beggars money, but I refuse to give you a religious reason for your selfishness with your money. I didn't say it was loving to ignore the homeless beggar. I said it was not loving to give him cash. 

So how can we actually love them? Any ideas?

Image thanks to Eli Christman.


Give them time

I quit giving cash years ago. It disappoints all I've encountered. But it's opened up a whole new world to me of real help. Here's what I do sometimes but only too rarely.

Take them out for a meal, take them shopping for food or critical items. Take time to talk with them, listen to them. It's okay to explain why you refuse certain requests.

If you do this a few times, you may soon find out which businesses are more hospitable. Find a few restaurants that have healthy food, a casual atmosphere, accepting staff, and single-person lockable bathrooms. Once, it wasn't the meal but the large private bathroom that a homeless man got the most use of. It was nearly closing time and the place was almost empty, so he felt comfortable taking his time in the bathroom and was very happy to get done whatever he needed in there. During good weather seasons, I've found that many tend to avoid shelters and so also have little access to a variety of indoor facilities we take for granted: mirrors, a clean place to repack a bag, real if only brief privacy.

Since we can't always feel able or willing, have backup plans. See if you have friends who can pitch in when you don't have time but come across an appropriate, pressing need. When a homeless man began visiting an urban church I once attended, he found a diverse group of people and a support network that he could rely on because he was not overly encumbering any one of us. Not everyone felt comfortable hugging him or giving him their phone number, not everyone could afford to take him to dinner, not everyone had cars to drive him places. But, for a while, he got regular, loving care and attention from individuals once or twice each week.

It's certainly not always all possible. But in an urban environment, while walking down the street, it's often very easy to pop in a store and help a person with a specific need.

People need to be careful about safety and getting in over their head. Stay in populated areas. I'd imagine most churches and shelters can offer advice or training in this area for those who feel inclined to get more involved. Even the occasional, irregular helper should have an emergency plan for weird or scary situations. I've had someone ask me to drive them to a place I didn't feel comfortable going; I asked for a busy intersection or subway stop to drop him off at instead. He understood and appreciated the still-helpful compromise.

Any personal and direct involvement, no matter how small, even just talking to them more politely than you do telemarketers, can be mutually beneficial.

What wonderful suggestions,

What wonderful suggestions, Paul. I'm hoping others will chime in with more.

I read this a few days ago

I read this a few days ago and have been thinking about it a lot since I live in Chicago, where I may see dozens of homeless people any given day. Today in a meeting at work this doctor happened to mention that his church gives phones with prepaid minutes out to homeless people - "because if you don't have a phone, you can't get a job." Wow. Simple and true! And phones are a luxury that I certainly take for granted. What a unique ministry, to be giving out cell phones so that folks can have contact info to put on job applications, etc.


We just moved to Chicago - do you have a church home that you could recommend?

Eric, I attend Westminster

Eric, I attend Westminster Reformed Presbyterian (, which is way up in Prairie View (Buffalo Grove) area. I've heard there are some good Orthodox Pres ( ) churches in other parts.

A great resourse

As a deacon for the past 4 years, our board has struggled through many of these same questions. There are no easy answers. However, for those that are genuinely interested, let me provide a great book that our board has read over the past year. It has been greatly helpful.

When Helping Hurts by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

Read it if you are involved at all in interacting with the poor.