When I venture to Center City, I expect to be asked for spare change by someone on the street or in the subway station at least once. It’s inevitable. And while some people stop to give a small amount of money to those in need, I rarely do.
I’m not selfish or greedy. I’m just skeptical about where the money is going. It’s easy to say that those who give to panhandlers are more generous than those who don’t. But dumping the coins from your pockets into a homeless person’s styrofoam cup isn’t an effective way to help them get what they really need: food, shelter and long-term stability.
To help those who are struggling financially and don’t have a place to call home, people should donate their money to charities or homeless shelters and raise awareness about the issue of homelessness.
According to the city’s Office of Homeless Services, there were 5,693 people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia as of January 2017. Of these people, 83 percent of them were “sheltered,” meaning they had access to a place to stay rather than sleeping on the street.
So while we see evidence of homelessness in our city’s streets, the majority of homeless people utilize the resources of shelters and nonprofit organizations to find temporary places to stay.
“There are many people…who are sleeping on friends’ and family’s couches and living room floors,” said Judith Levine, a sociology professor who has studied poverty. “A lot of women and children are moving from friend to friend or family member to family member, and they don’t have a home of their own.”
But not all people have friends or family to assist them in hard times.
It’s natural to feel good about yourself after helping someone. And people who give money to panhandlers tend to think they’ve done their part to combat homelessness, when the truth is their impact is small.
“In some ways, panhandling allows people to get off easy because they can feel like they’re being helpful, when they’re really not being all that generous,” Levine said.
Giving someone money to avoid feeling guilty isn’t going to relieve the underlying issue of poverty. In fact, it may be enabling people struggling with addiction.
According to a survey of 129 panhandlers done by the OHS, 63 percent of participants reported struggling with substance use. While people asking for money may buy food, it’s also possible they may buy drugs or alcohol. The only way to be sure where your money is going is to donate to an organization with a defined mission.
One option is Project HOME, an organization attempting to break the cycle of homelessness through its street outreach program. Outreach workers build relationships with people who are homeless and help them find places to live.
You can also text SHARE to 80077 to donate $5 to the Mayor’s Fund to End Homelessness. The OHS will match your donation and split it among 60 nonprofits to provide help for homeless people.
But you can also make an immediate impact by being more aware of the challenges faced by those struggling with poverty and homelessness in our city.
Jason Del Gandio, a communication and social influence professor, teaches a capstone advocacy course for communication seniors in which students choose a social and political issue to address. Last semester’s students chose homelessness in Philadelphia and created a small-scale public campaign.
Del Gandio said it takes more than a few cents to fix this deep-rooted, societal problem. He encourages people to join campaigns or start their own to educate the public about the broader issue of homelessness.
“Just about every right, liberty or freedom that we hold dear as Americans has come by way of a social movement: large collections of people acting together to fight for social change,” Del Gandio said.
We can’t sit idly by while fellow Philadelphians sleep on the streets, but we can’t pretend that giving one person a dollar counts as making a difference either.
We should instead work to raise awareness about the magnitude of homelessness and then spread the word. The more people who understand this issue will lead to more people who show compassion and donate to organizations that are truly making a difference like Project HOME.
Homelessness is bigger than you and me or the coins in our pockets, so it’s time we start treating it like the complex epidemic that it has become.