To Give, Or Not To Give: What's The Best Way To Help SF's Homeless?

To Give, Or Not To Give: What's The Best Way To Help SF's Homeless?Photo: Ken Fisher/HandUp
Shane Downing
Published on August 21, 2016

If you were a child of the 1980s—or if you’ve been one or had one since—chances are that you’re familiar with the classic children’s book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. In Laura Numeroff’s illustrated story, she tells her readers, both young and old, what exactly happens when you give a mouse a cookie: the mouse keeps asking for more. Whether it's a glass of milk, a mirror, or a broomstick, the mouse’s needs are seemingly endless, and we’re left wondering at the end if the rodent’s demands can ever be met.

For San Franciscans who've experienced the inner struggle of deciding whether or not to give a dollar bill to a person sitting on the street, there are apparent parallels between Numeroff’s children's book and everyday life in the city.

When thinking about giving—a cookie, a quarter, a 'hello'—to individuals who find themselves on the streets of San Francisco, some people are motivated by compassion; others, by guilt. Still others keep their wallets in their pockets, not out of greed, but so that they don’t perpetuate someone’s perceived laziness or addiction.

There's no hard and fast rule to giving, and it's obviously a very personal choice. But for those who are interested in pulling out their wallets, here's some things you should keep in mind.

Panhandler Minds: A 2013 Study That Remains Relevant In 2016

“Many people who panhandle aren’t homeless, and the vast majority of people who are homeless don’t panhandle,” says Sam Dodge, director of the Mayor’s Office of Housing Opportunity, Partnerships and Engagement (HOPE).

Dodge noted a 2013 study initiated by the Union Square Business Improvement District, in which researchers were contracted to survey 146 panhandlers in Union Square over the course of two days, asking them about themselves, their living situations, and their reasons for asking for money.

The study found that 82 percent of Union Square’s panhandlers were homeless, with only three percent claiming that they did not want housing. (There are nearly 800 people on San Francisco’s emergency shelter waitlist.)

As ThinkProgress reported in 2013, "the typical Union Square panhandler is a disabled, middle-aged single male who is a racial minority and makes less than $25 per day—despite panhandling seven days a week for more than five years.” An overwhelming 94 percent of respondents said that they allocated these daily earnings towards getting food, while 44 percent said that the money went towards drugs and alcohol. 

"Why lie, I need a beer." | Photo: Peter Barwick/Flickr

The researchers also spoke with people who had given to someone on the streets. Of the 400 people surveyed, the researchers found that empathy was the biggest motivator for giving, and that young, working-class Bay Area residents were the group most likely to give. Three in five respondents said that they gave “because they or a family member may be in need someday.”

A panhandler in Union Square. | Photo: Glenn Halog/Flickr

Of Givers And Gift Cards

Galen Thompson fits the definition of a young, Bay Area resident who gives to those less fortunate. “It’s the classic golden rule,” said Thompson, of the Upper Haight. “I have a pretty strong sense that there’s a lot of luck and randomness in the situation that I find myself in, as opposed to the situation that a person who is homeless finds himself in. Certainly, if it were the other way around, I would want to have someone extend compassion to me.”

Thompson doesn’t hand out money to people on his neighborhood's streets—at least not now. He wrestled with the idea for some time, oscillating between handing out small bills and handing out hellos.

In light of the myths revolving around panhandling, he had a long-running conversation with friends about what was the right response to people asking for help. “For me,” said Thompson, “not giving cash to people was not about what they might use it for. It was just that even if they use it for something positive, it still doesn’t help them accomplish very much.”

A homeless man in San Francisco. | Photo: Wildwise Studio/Flickr

Last year, Thompson started donating through HandUp, a local tech company that's dedicated to fighting poverty. The company has created an online platform that allows people to directly donate to nonprofit organizations and people in need across the country.

Additionally, the organization offers $25 gift cards, which are redeemable at service providers like Project Homeless Connect, GLIDE, and SF Cares“The most important aspect of the cards for me,” Thompson said, “is that [individuals in need] are being connected to services. If someone does redeem the card, it’s much more likely that becomes a path out of homelessness than just giving them a couple of dollars.”

Photo: Ken Fisher/HandUp

Not everyone who receives a gift card redeems it; according to HandUp, redemption rates hover between 60 and 70 percent. But even if a card goes unredeemed, the money still goes to helping people on HandUp’s platform. Each card also contains a fold-out map, explaining where it can be redeemed and for what it can be used.

Thompson, who often wondered what happened to the money that he handed out to people over the years, enjoys that he is able to track the impact of his HandUp gift cards. “Once someone uses a card, then they’re also on HandUp, and you get a notification. You can actually continue to invest in them, and support projects that they put on their profiles, that way.”

Individuals on HandUp can request monetary donations for anything and everything, including covering medical bills, paying security deposits, and purchasing bedding.  

“People want to know what the impact of their actions are, and now with technology, you can see the impact of your actions so much more transparently,” said Rose Broome, HandUp’s CEO and co-founder.

"Homeless please help." | Photo: Thomas Hawk/Flickr

When asked what it’s like to hand a stranger on the street a gift card instead of a handful of coins, Thompson described it as “very different."

"When you give somebody cash,” he said, “it’s usually quick, and you can do it and walk away. The gift card requires a conversation, which I think is very positive; I tell them my name and ask for their name. The thing I like about the card is this component of community support. In addition to useful funds—$25 does a lot more for someone than the two or three dollars you might normally give them—it gives a person the sense that there’s someone in the community that wants to be supportive of them.”

A conversation in the Financial District. | Photo: Little U.F.O. Taiwan/Flickr

Thompson only hands out cards to people who are on the streets asking for help, and he said he has never had someone tell him that he or she doesn’t want a gift card. “That helps ensure that they are prepared to have a conversation with a stranger,” said Thompson. “The conversations are usually super positive, and people are very appreciative.”

Though some have argued that money given to a homeless individual has more of an impact when there are strings attached, Dodge said that there are legitimate arguments for giving any kind of contribution to a person experiencing homelessness. While HandUp's model is "innovative," he told us, giving food and money directly to those on the streets is also "absolutely legitimate."

Photo: Lawrence's Lenses/Flick

"People have real relationships with their neighbors who may be homeless or extremely low-income," said Dodge, "and there’s been a lot of research done globally about the benefits of cash transfers. There is a real valid point to just giving people resources directly."

Dodge was quick to note that a societal problem as severe as homelessness isn’t a few dollars away from being resolved. Whether it's a HandUp gift card or a one-dollar bill, "it’s not about systemic change or about ending someone’s homelessness," he said. "It’s about making the moment a little more comfortable for someone. To help them make it through the day."