On Responding to Beggars

I live in one of the largest cities in the U.S.A.

When I’m downtown, inevitably I get approached by someone asking for money. It happened Monday night when I was downtown for dinner with my wife.

How to respond is always a difficult call. We’ve all heard the stories of beggars in major cities standing on street corners and raking in $400-$500/day. Such stories make people cynical and less likely to give even to those who may be truly needy. How do you decide in a split second whether someone is truly needy, just lazy or looking for money for their next beer?

These aren’t new problems. My wife tells me in Geneva during the Reformation, beggars had to be licensed. The local authorities determined whether an individual was truly needy so generous citizens were assured they weren’t being duped. A similar practice was adopted by Scottish Reformers.

The licensing of beggars is probably not happening any time soon in the U.S.A.. So, in the interim I want to give you some initial thoughts then three different approaches you can take to beggars.

Whatever approach you choose, you must ultimately be led by the Holy Spirit. Not every situation can be reduced to a rule or principle. But you will be in a better position to hear the Holy Spirit if you are not subject to being guilt-manipulated. The best way to avoid that is to tithe and give above your tithe regularly. Having given, you will be less-likely to give on the street out of guilt rather than in response to true need or the leading of the Holy Spirit.

With that in mind, here are three ways to respond a beggar:

1.  Offer to buy him food. Tell him you won’t give him money but would be glad to buy him food or or a meal. I’ve known people who do this and used the opportunity talk about Jesus while they eat. At a minimum it ensures he isn’t spending the money at the nearest liquor store.

2.  Offer to pay him for work. This can be logistically more difficult, but here’s an example. You carry car wax, rag and shammy in your car. You get approached by a beggar. You decline his request for a handout but offer him $10 to wax your car. If he refuses, you’ve just avoided be taken. The Apostle Paul said if one is unwilling to work, then don’t let him eat. (2 Thess. 3:10).

3.  Only give if one is physically disabled. I credit my wife, who is a fountain of common sense, with this one, and this is what I’m currently doing. It may sound a bit harsh, but think about it: If the person asking you for money is missing his legs or an arm, that’s pretty good evidence he has a legitimate need. You can’t see a person’s heart but you can see his limbs.

Remember, these are presumptive approaches. You still have to be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit and be willing to depart from these approaches when the Lord leads, but these will make it more likely you end up a blessing rather than a mark. GS