It’s the season for giving, so should you give money to beggars?

Zoya Patel 9 December 2021 63
domestic violence causing homelessness signboard

The Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout challenges many false perceptions around homelessness. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

It’s mind-boggling that people are sleeping rough or begging for change in Canberra in 2021.

While the majority of us enjoy the gentle run down to Christmas, it’s hard to look past the forlorn figures crouched outside the Canberra Centre, cardboard signs propped up with their pleas for compassion.

But giving money to beggars isn’t always seen as a straightforward transaction, and I’m wondering what the consensus is out there as to the best action to take when it comes to helping strangers on the street.

There are two schools of thought on this.

The first is that people begging on the street should be able to access welfare, or otherwise should ‘get a job’ and support themselves.

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If you give them money, they’ll ‘probably just spend it on drugs’, which would be adding to the problem, not providing them with some relief. The underlying assumption behind this attitude is that Australians are all equally able to support themselves or access support if needed, and that if an individual is reduced to begging on the street, it’s likely a self-created issue.

This obviously doesn’t take into account structural inequalities and barriers to education, employment and housing that affect many Australians.

The alternative approach (and the one I subscribe to personally) is that nobody chooses to be in the position where they’re sleeping rough or needing to beg for money. It’s unfair to assume that a) every beggar has a drug addiction or that b) people suffering from addiction don’t deserve empathy, agency and dignity. Addiction is an illness, and the drivers behind it are often related to broader issues like experiences of inequality, trauma, marginalisation and generational disadvantage.

Personally, I hand out cash to beggars regularly, sometimes as much as $50 at a time, because I am in a financial position where that $50 is not so essential to my well being that I can’t go without it, and I am acutely aware of the luck and privilege I have experienced that means my circumstances are so vastly different from the person I am walking past.

Some would say that giving money to beggars also reduces the onus placed on governments to take action.

I would argue that there is little correlation between whether or not you drop your change into an outstretched palm and how government policy addresses the issue of poverty and inequality. While there are clear broader implications of the existence of beggars beyond the individual, including how our welfare system operates, what crisis accommodation and support options are available to people in need, how mental health care and rehabilitation is made accessible to various parts of the community etc, there is also an immediate individual issue that I can affect right then and there.

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In the moment, I know that giving that individual sitting outside the IGA $5 is going to make a measurable impact to their circumstances that day.

My lobbying the government, which is a valid and important thing to do, may have a lasting impact in the future, but it won’t make a difference right now. The two things are both impactful, in different ways.

As to the argument around where and how the money will be spent, personally, I don’t think that’s any of my business. I offer cash because I have it and someone needs it. It’s not up to me to dictate how it’s spent because being poor or unwell doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have agency and self-determination. If the person I give money to spends it on drugs, that’s their prerogative and choice, and not actually up to me to decide.

Similarly, I’ve had people say that they prefer to buy beggars a meal or hot drink. These same people are then offended when their offer of half a sandwich leftover from their lunch is rejected.

“I can’t believe he wouldn’t take the sandwich,” they exclaim. To which I reply, “Maybe he doesn’t like ham and cheese.”

Again, just because they’re poor or unwell doesn’t mean beggars should have to eat, drink or accept whatever is offered to them. They have tastes and preferences like anyone else. I give money because it means they can make that choice themselves.

As Christmas looms and spending increases accordingly, I’m even more aware of how much so many of us have in contrast to the suffering of those we walk past on our way to do our holiday shopping. I make donations to different charities throughout the year, and I know many Canberrans do so, especially at this time. But what about the individuals who are right in front of us? Should we give them cash to ease their burdens, or will we actually just be contributing to the problem?

What's Your Opinion?

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63 Responses to It’s the season for giving, so should you give money to beggars?
Julia Burns Julia Burns 8:16 am 11 Dec 21

Great article Zoya. I’m saddened by some of the comments though 😢

Brianna Brianna 8:26 pm 10 Dec 21

I’ve had a few interactions with street people. One was sitting outside at Dickson and I asked her what she needed. She was very embarrassed as she quietly told me that she needed sanitary products. (they should be GST free) Another in Belconnen asked me for some money to get something to eat. I told him I would buy him something to eat if he would come with me to the coffee shop. His eyes lit up. When we got there, he asked for a hot drink and a sandwich. That was all. I was quite happy to buy that for him. Another bloke also in Belconnen asked for some money and when I said I would buy him some food, he said he would prefer cash. So, one bad one out of three. All it takes is a little kindness to speak to the person and ask what they need.

Debbie Hope Debbie Hope 4:51 pm 10 Dec 21

I give food and milk

staffie0927 staffie0927 8:51 am 10 Dec 21

Please, if you do have compassion for the beggars and street people talk to them as humans and just don’t throw money to them. I volunteer every week in Civic in an organization where we treat street people with dignity and love. Throwing $50 to them as you walk past is not treating them with dignity, it’s just virtue signalling at its worse. Just this Wednesday I was talking with a street person who lives quite comfortably on the $1,000 a fortnight he receives. $250 is taken out for rent. And yes the majority of beggars do have ACT housing. The point is treat them with respect, like humans and don’t just throw some cash in as you walk past. If you do want to donate please consider Vinnies, Catholic Care and Missionheart, all of whom actually work around Canberra to make a difference in Canberra’s homeless and street people.

Simon Krix Simon Krix 7:50 pm 09 Dec 21

I'm with Zoya 100% on every one of her points. Good article.

kenbehrens kenbehrens 5:45 pm 09 Dec 21

A few years ago when we were visiting our son in Sydney, there were blankets and items of clothing under shelter on the streets of Newtown.
People had left money on the ground near the blankets. You knew someone had slept there last night.

I regularly see people asking for money in Canberra. The difference is stark. I saw a guy at Erindale: on the ground next to him was a bottle of Coca Cola. Not even a “homebrand” variety, but the brand name product. Chained next him was an 18 speed mountain bike.

Outside Aldi at Greenway I overheard a conversation between a male beggar and a woman. They were talking about their takings and the next spot she thought she’d try. Both had iPhones.

Yes, there are genuine people but there’s an element who are just happy to take your money because you are an easy take.

Offer to buy them a sandwich or a piece of fruit and I bet they’ll tell you they need the cash.

Acton Acton 5:07 pm 09 Dec 21

The money you are giving out of misplaced guilt to a street beggar is just funding their drug, smokes and/or booze addiction.
The money you are giving to a charity collector (chugger) is mostly (about 95%) going to the organisation (Cornucopia) that recruits these aggressive pests, even flying some in from overseas.
Do not give money to beggers, or chuggers because you will be creating a society where people make a living from begging (eg India) or street harrassment. Is that what we want?
If anyone is silly enough to sign up for regular donations to a charity, know that some charities take 60% of the donation in administrative costs (CEO salaries are high) and will also pass your contact information on to other charities to engage in endless mailouts and phone calls to you at home asking for more.

    A Nonny Mouse A Nonny Mouse 10:02 am 10 Dec 21

    I thought this comment was leading up to a recommendation to sign up to a regular contribution to a reputable charity in preference to ad hoc hand-outs. But no. It remained mean about that too. By all means, research which charities are most effective but don’t dismiss them all. Many do excellent work on a shoestring budget.

    Acton Acton 1:35 pm 10 Dec 21

    One should donate to good charities of choice, but never give out personal bank, phone or address details so as to avoid the persistent marketing tactics of their outsourced fund raising companies that earn commissions on extracting further donations.

Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 4:08 pm 09 Dec 21

So the problem with Jobseeker is that it’s insufficient for its recipients to live on. Well guess what folks – it’s not meant to be a living income as those in the welfare industry (including our waste of space charities) would like to think. Rather, it’s designed. to provide subsistence for those who are between jobs.

As for help not being available for people to get through school, attend TAFE or University and be able to spruce themselves up and afford rent, we have charities coming out of our ears in Canberra- isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Or are they simply there for show – you know, to take our money and exude a warm inner glow? Sort of reminds you of the ACT Government actually.

It really is about time our bleeding hearts got real and looked to the real culprit- the ACT Government. After all, they do seem to wish we were all poor – other than their highly favoured developers of course!

margaret pender margaret pender 1:34 pm 09 Dec 21

Great article, thank you, Zoya Patel. Recently, SBS ran a series about 3 people who tried to live on JobSeeker allowance for a week – they all failed. The people they were ‘paired with’ barely managed to survive on their benefits, and there was no leeway for things like dentistry, extra medicines etc. Interesting to see from responses so far that milk of human kindness doesn’t seem to be running in the ACT – it’s curdled!

Dee Copping Dee Copping 12:48 pm 09 Dec 21

No body has the right to judge a person, solely based on their circumstance at that given moment. Who knows why they are homeless. If you've got a kind enough heart to give a little or as much as $50, do it. People deserve second chances and sometimes a few more.

Daniel Harrison Daniel Harrison 12:05 pm 09 Dec 21

I'm a fairly selfish bloke but I'll occasionally hand over a few gold coins if I have them. But it would never cross my mind to try to build some weird moral judgement about what they'll spend it on. It's not the 19th century.

chewy14 chewy14 11:25 am 09 Dec 21

Given money to beggars just proliferates the issue and actively encourages them.

And it’s not like they are all poor souls, down on their luck. Some can be quite forceful and rude both with the public and other homeless people, particularly around more lucrative begging positions.

Australia has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world, there is no reason for people to be begging considering the enormous amount of support services available.

If you want to help them outside of that, ask them what type of food or drink they like and buy it for them.

To give them money and claim “it’s not your business” where it’s spent is a massive cop-out. A large proportion of the time, giving them money is actively feeding the addictions that have driven them to the street in the first place.

    Mike of Canberra Mike of Canberra 11:56 am 10 Dec 21

    Chewy, I think your comment is spot on!

Christina Slater Christina Slater 11:10 am 09 Dec 21

Have we all turned into scrooges!

Genevieve Schild Genevieve Schild 11:09 am 09 Dec 21

I don't really carry cash anymore as I pay for everything on card. But I have gone into the shops and bought a coffee and some dog treats for a homeless man with his dog. People commenting seem to have forgotten that anybody can become homeless through no fault of their own. And if you are worried that "they will just spend the money on drugs", then you can give them a Coles gift card, or buy them some fruit or a warm blanket or something like that which is really helpful for them. If you are going into the shops anyway, ask them what they need and you could get something for them. They'll be very grateful. Give them some hand sanitiser (always useful now with the pandemic!), sunscreen, new socks, some food, treats for their dog (as I often see homeless people with a pet).

And if you can't give anything, give them a smile and a hello and be kind.

Travissi Gilbert Travissi Gilbert 10:41 am 09 Dec 21

A good piece but Wow. The people commenting on the article on the Riot Act site crawled straight out of the Old Testament.

    Karen Nicholson Karen Nicholson 10:47 am 09 Dec 21

    Travissi Gilbert too right. What happened to 'do unto others'?

    Christina Slater Christina Slater 11:18 am 09 Dec 21

    Or a Christmas Carol!

Jenny Koch Jenny Koch 10:30 am 09 Dec 21

Some of them I do who don’t have a smoke in their mouths. Agree it’s not my prerogative to decide how they spend it or on what, but if they can beg for cigarette money then I am enabling them for the wrong reasons. My opinion only. Probably wrong after I read the article but it’s a choice I also make.

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 2:44 pm 09 Dec 21

    Jenny Koch yet that maybe the only pleasure they get. No nice place to sleep. No holidays, mostly not in contact with family. Yes let's not let them have a cigarette or something that we do not agree with

    Jenny Koch Jenny Koch 3:25 pm 09 Dec 21

    Jenny McInnes like I said it’s only my opinion when and if I do give them money. Of course you don’t have to agree. Not expecting that anyone has to agree with how I decide to give donations to the homeless or the ones worse off than me.

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 3:31 pm 09 Dec 21

    I find it odd some peoples ideas of charity...

    Nell Feneck Nell Feneck 5:21 pm 09 Dec 21

    Jenny McInnes it’s often more about judgement than charity ...

    That’s sad -

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 5:22 pm 09 Dec 21

    Nell Feneck yes. I think sometimes they do want makes them feel good. Not for the broader community ☹

Lisa Bishop Lisa Bishop 10:27 am 09 Dec 21

Be kind.

Paul Totterdell Paul Totterdell 10:03 am 09 Dec 21

So homeless = beggar? Are you sure you want to put it like that?

Interestingly it is people who have experienced hardship that give the most and those who never have, use derision and prejudgment while giving little or none.

    Woolf RA Woolf RA 10:05 am 09 Dec 21

    Yes, there was a conflation in this article. I think it could have been edited more carefully. And the word ‘beggar’ has judgemental connotations that are not helpful.

    Christina Slater Christina Slater 11:15 am 09 Dec 21

    But people may beg for busfare if they no other way to get home, or if they're desperate to stop getting their electricity cut off. Being homeless is very expensive as you don't have a fridge, and you can't buy in bulk. Too eat healthily you have to buy food when you need it, and you need to have bottled water with COVID to stop becoming dehydrated. Most people don't have coins anymore as we don't use cash very often.

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 2:40 pm 09 Dec 21

    Paul Totterdell 100 percent

Samuel Gordon-Stewart Samuel Gordon-Stewart 10:01 am 09 Dec 21

When it’s the drug addicts giving me the usual story about “$5 for the bus” I’m unlikely to give anything, but I will give a few dollars to a polite request which doesn’t come with an unlikely story. In fact last night on my way to work I stopped at a servo to get food for my shift and bought a little bit of extra food to hand to the homeless person (with a cardboard sign about his situation) who engaged me in polite conversation and didn’t make a single request.

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 2:39 pm 09 Dec 21

    So if they said it was for a bottle of grog on freezing cold night as that is most likely the only thing to keep them warm and take away pain... would you give them $5? Or a packet of cigarettes etc

    Samuel Gordon-Stewart Samuel Gordon-Stewart 2:43 pm 09 Dec 21

    Jenny McInnes Hmmm, very good question. If they were to put it like that, I would certainly consider it. I give them credit for seeming to be honest.

    I wouldn’t buy alcohol for them though as I don’t drink and don’t feel in any way comfortable buying alcohol.

    Jenny McInnes Jenny McInnes 2:47 pm 09 Dec 21

    Samuel Gordon-Stewart understand. I worked in Housing for close to 20 years and IF they have a government place they pretty much need to be economist to live ok if they are on a welfare.

    I have no problem giving money to people to spend how they want. Its not like its $1k

Mandy Moo Mandy Moo 9:54 am 09 Dec 21

No one should judge anybody who is on the streets.

There are so many reasons why they are and people need to stop just assuming it’s only because of drugs and alcohol!

If you can help them then do it!

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