Deciding whether to give money to a beggar or homeless person can be confusing. Here are three steps that help guide our response to the homeless in Australia and around the world.

Walking back from a coffee run, a former colleague and I spotted a man on the corner of a bustling street. He was on his knees and his head remained bowed as he held up a cardboard sign asking for spare change. Before the pedestrian light changed, I rummaged through the leftover coins from my morning coffee but halted when my colleague said, “I’d give the poor guy some change but he’ll just spend it on drugs, so it’s not really helping.”

It’s a common sentiment that we've heard or thought in similar encounters. But, before we make a judgement on whether our few coins are in good hands or not, it’s important to get a clearer picture of homelessness in Australia. Based on a combination of data from the Australian government and various charities, here are three steps to guide our response when faced with the question: ‘Should I give money to this homeless person?'

Identify the (real) causes of homelessness

Reducing homelessness to a drug and alcohol problem is easy when we don’t see the underlying causes and contexts of homelessness. In a relatively wealthy country like Australia where welfare and support systems are accessible, it’s easy to switch into a judgmental mode when we see a homeless person. But contrary to popular belief, homelessness is a complex issue that stems from more than just someone’s lifestyle.

A survey run by a news outlet, Pro Bono, found that 62 per cent of respondents believed that drug addiction was the leading cause of homelessness in Australia but in reality, drug abuse accounts for only six per cent of homeless cases. Homelessness is multifaceted and widespread, affecting more people than we think. According to the Australian Human Rights Commission, roughly one in 200 Australians can’t find a safe, secure or affordable place to sleep. The Human Rights Commission says homelessness is caused by a variety of factors:

  • Homelessness is a product of other human rights abuses such as poverty, violence and a lack of affordable housing
  • Domestic violence is one of the leading causes of homelessness in Australia
  • Health issues such as mental illness and social isolation can also contribute to the problem of homelessness
  • Circumstances in life such as the death of a loved one, job loss or relationship breakdowns can trigger a chain of events that leads to homelessness
  • Housing shortages and the lack of affordable housing is the leading cause of homelessness—In 2018, almost 195,000 Australians were on the waiting list for social housing but the lack of emergency accommodation means approximately 250 people are left without a safe place to sleep.

It’s tempting to simplify homelessness as a drug and alcohol problem, but the statistics paint a very different picture. In reality, the beggars we see on the street corner or at the train station present a small picture of the widespread problem. People sleeping on the streets without a roof over their heads make up just seven per cent of all homeless people in the country—that means many are couch surfing or living in overcrowded temporary shelters. Before we pass judgement on whether a beggar will spend our coins wisely or not, let’s remember that the beggar in front of us will have a complex history of hurt, pain and hopelessness, and we don’t understand their story or their context as well as we think we do.

Recognise the true impact of homelessness

Homelessness impacts a person’s socio-emotional, physical and spiritual wellbeing. For an individual, the physical effects of homelessness are devastating, but the lack of shelter affects more than a person’s health. Without a permanent address, it becomes difficult to secure employment, continue schooling or maintain relationships. Australians experiencing homelessness—whether it’s couch surfing, living in an emergency shelter or on the streets—face extreme stress, anxiety and isolation from the community.

When we begin to recognise the multiple impacts of homelessness, our response shifts from indifference to care and concern. At Compassion, we believe that investing in one child can transform an entire community. In Australia, we can apply the same lens when it comes to homelessness. One third of homeless people in Australia are under 18 years old, and almost two-thirds of children and young people were fleeing domestic violence. At a young and impressionable age, children are disproportionately affected by homelessness. Young adults can also experience a lack of confidence and self-worth as they battle homelessness.

Homelessness also impacts vulnerable groups at alarming rates. Single women over the age of 45 years who live in rental properties are at a higher risk of becoming homeless. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are also exposed to a higher risk of homelessness—despite making up two per cent of the nation’s population, a quarter of all homeless people are from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander backgrounds.

Taking a moment to consider the devastating impact homelessness can have on children, young people, older women and minority groups helps us take on the posture of humility and empathy as we approach homeless people. One way we can do this is to extend the same respect and dignity to a beggar or homeless person as we would our relative or friend.

Donna Stolzenberg, founder of Melbourne Homeless Collective says, “Homeless people deserve the same respect, but because some of us believe they have no control over their wellbeing, we may also feel it’s our responsibility to take care of them so we treat them like infants.”

This burden of responsibility pressures us to play the role of a supervisor, making decisions on behalf of a homeless person and forgetting that they were created in the image of God with unique preferences, desires and dreams.

Although there is a time and season for exercising wisdom and discretion in giving monetary donations, dictating how the recipient should use the money can rob someone of their dignity and self-worth. It creates a humiliating situation that reinforces the helplessness of an already vulnerable person.

Instead, try this:

  • Make a conscious decision to engage with the person in front of you. Remind yourself that they are made in the image of God and are as worthy of love, respect and dignity as anyone else.
  • If you decide to buy a homeless person a meal, consider asking them about their preferences rather than choosing for them. In mealtime settings with friends, we’d typically ask about their dietary needs. It can give a homeless person a greater sense of respect by simply offering them a choice.
  • If giving money is financially challenging, be creative with your gifts and partner with a local organisation that provides relief through blanket deliveries and soup kitchens in the winter.

Know the difference between short and long-term help

The Bible clearly illustrates how Christians are to respond to the poor and hopeless. Jesus says, “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” in Matthew 5:42, and in James it says, “Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them ‘Go in peace, keep warm and well fed’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15-16).

There is an obvious call to be practical in the way we extend our help to the poor, needy and homeless but knowing the difference between short-, long-term and ineffective help can ensure our dollar is well-invested.

Giving small amounts of cash or purchasing a meal for a homeless person in a dignified and respectful manner can provide short-term relief, encouragement and help. But, it’s important to remember that small contributions of our spare change is a short-term solution that is most effective when combined with a long-term approach.

How to provide long-term help: - Donating to an organisation means your money goes further in supporting the most vulnerable people in society by equipping them with accommodation, medicine, school equipment or clothing. You can find a list of local organisations here. - Volunteering your time with a local organisation can help with relief efforts and provide much-needed human resources. - Raising awareness and partnering with efforts to spread the word about homelessness and various initiatives go a long way in providing people with care. - Recycling your pre-loved clothes and dropping them off in a clothing bin helps minimise waste and provide resources for people in need.

But, it’s also important to note that overseas, there are plenty of instances when giving money is unhelpful. In many developing countries around the world, giving money can be more harmful than good. Begging syndicates are forms of modern-day slavery, where men, women and children can be deliberately maimed and forced into the life of organised begging to extort money from tourists and visitors.

In these situations, giving cash can be the least helpful option, as it perpetuates a cycle of crime and slavery. While our intentions are good, we can actually end up doing harm. If you’re joining a Compassion trip or visiting an area where donating cash could do more harm than good, it’s important to do your research beforehand—ask your trip leader and prepare your response so you’re not taken by surprise. Most importantly, remember that a beggar is not an inconvenience, but a person who is loved by God.

The issue of whether we should give to beggars can be a complicated one. Too often our response is to walk faster and to let our eyes slide away. But the response God asks of us is different. As we turn to the Bible for wisdom and discretion, let’s meditate on this piece of encouragement: Don’t close off your heart when you’re in the situation of being asked to give to beggars. “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you” (Matthew 7:12). Keep your heart soft, and open to the Holy Spirit. Allow yourself to be challenged and moved, and, most of all, talk about it with others and seek out your own revelation.

Words by Shona Yang

Photo by Compassion USA