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Posted by on Aug 6, 2013 in Blog, Essays, Las Vegas | 25 comments

Should You Give Money to Street Beggars?




There’s been an alarming uptick in the number of street beggars around lately, especially at major intersections.

A typical scene goes like this.  The panhandler hoists a cardboard sign desperately pleading for help.  He (or increasingly — she) approaches the driver’s window of cars waiting at red lights.  Once traffic comes to a stop, the beggar exits curbside, walks into the street, and begins parading between rows of cars, constantly on the prowl for kindhearted drivers willing to fork over a buck or two, or some loose pocket change.

These exchanges seem innocent enough.  However, they’re also troubling for a few reasons.

First, there seems to be more beggars now than ever before — particularly working Las Vegas street corners.  I lack data to prove this.  It’s just a casual observation based on my daily routine and what I’ve observed around town.  Sometimes, multiple beggars work the same intersection.

I once (mistakenly) thought that panhandling was a reflection of the economy.  Boom economy = less beggars.  Bad economy = more beggars.  But the unemployment rate and general economic conditions don’t seem to impact the numbers of panhandlers and frequency of begging.  Otherwise, Flint (Michigan) would be the begging capital of America.  Fact is, you’re more likely to see beggars working the street corners of affluent areas of town.  Here in Las Vegas, lots more panhandling goes on in Summerlin and Green Valley (richer areas) than the poor sections of town.  I suppose beggars are simply flocking to where the money is.

A far bigger concern is wondering how many of these beggars are, in fact, who they claim to be.  Moreover, will the cash handout go towards food or be used to buy drugs or alcohol, usually the two vices that created homelessness in the first place?  I suspect this fear is what makes most of us reluctant to give money to someone to claims to be in dire need.  We don’t want our generosity abused.  What’s the point of giving money, if it goes to feed the cycle of self-destruction? [Footnote 1]

Let’s try and establish some common agreement.  I think most of us really want to help the less fortunate.  If someone is so destitute that they’re forced to beg for a meal, then common human decency demands that we try and help them, even if they contributed to their own misfortune from abusing drugs or alcohol.  No one (anywhere) should starve.  Period.  No one wants to see bodies collapsing in the streets from hunger and thirst, no matter what the contributing circumstances.

The dilemma comes from the uncertainty of knowing who’s legitimately destitute versus those either too lazy to work (bad), or who are con-artists (worse).  There’s plenty of panhandlers out there who likely can be classified as truly needy, lazy people, or frauds.  A fair number are truly in need.  I think the percentages that fall into this category tend to be higher in big cities.  Having lived in Washington, DC for several years, I witnessed far too many homeless people huddled together on street corners in sub-freezing temperatures to suspect that they were either lazy, or charlatans.  Many had mental health issues.

But what about able-bodied panhandlers?  Are they just plain lazy?  Their plight probably stems from a mix of different circumstances, some beyond their control.  Some are too lazy, or refuse to work for low wages when they can make more money per hour begging on the streets.  Others are most certainly helpless victims now at the tail end of a succession of personal misfortunes.

The real cretins of panhandling are the frauds — such as those who claim to be handicapped.  Stories surface all the time on seemingly disfigured beggars who are in fact quite healthy, and who have nice homes and plenty of food.  One of the most despicable recent examples of this was this report from New York City.  FIFTH AVENUE BEGGAR EXPOSED AS A FRAUD

What’s really most troubling about these disgraceful people is that they destroy our trust.  They poison our desire to do what is kind and good.  They ruin the genuine human need, inherent in most all of us, to comfort others.

Indeed, seeing so many beggars using faith and patriotism (two of our most overrated virtues) to prey on altruistic victims takes the homeless debate to a new low.  It’s astounding to see so many signs claiming to be war veterans, or worse — overtly religious.  Just about every cardboard sign ends with the words “God Bless,” which makes me wonder what in the fuck happened to god’s supposed “blessing” that he made the sign holder a homeless drug addict?

But I digress.

I’ve made a rather difficult personal decision that I will no longer give money to beggars.  I’m not entirely comfortable with this, because I really do want to help.  It pains me that the next person I say “no” to may in fact be hungry.  Which leads me to conclude this discussion with an entirely different perspective.

Last week, I was walking down the street with Todd Anderson, who runs the production known as “Poker Night in America.”  A poorly-dressed, unshaven man who looked like he hadn’t bathed in weeks approached us.  He asked for a dollar to buy something to eat.

Without hesitation, Todd reached into his pocket and pulled out a few bucks.  He handed it over to the man.  The man thanked Todd and wandered off.

Afterward, I asked Todd if it bothered him that his generosity might be used to buy booze or drugs.  I questioned him about the efficacy of blindly handing out money on the streets to people claiming to be victims.  He provided a positive and upbeat reply, characteristic of his good nature, which is common with many people (like Todd) who live in the Midwest.

“I don’t know if he’s really homeless, or not,” Todd said.  “It doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that I’m fortunate.  I can afford a few dollars.  And if he blows the money on alcohol and drugs, that’s too bad.  But for every one like that, the next person may really be in need.  I”m doing this on the off chance that this really is someone who can use some help.”

That’s a pretty hard philosophy to argue with.

Readers, what do you think?

Should beggars be given money?


FOOTNOTE 1:  This is one of many reasons why government assistance and social programs are absolutely essential in society.  Those in need must have somewhere to turn.



  1. As a nation, we’ve already reached a saturation point of giving trillions of dollars to large banks and Wall Street through QE 1, QE 2, and QE 3 monetary easing by the Federal Reserve:

    If the taxpayers and savers of this country are being forced to subsidize the wealthiest by patching up whatever financial mistakes they made, why should there be any moral compunction involved with donating a few bucks to a street beggar?

    • Because its something we can control. We have to pay taxes and I don’t know anyone who actually believes they have any control where that money gets wasted

    • I had rather give to organizations who give who helped these people than to give to people on the street.

  2. I use my 6th sense when I’m approached by beggars or I walk by a person on the street holding a sign. It’s basically like a read at the poker table. I feel like I have a good sense on who really needs help and who is just trying to get the next fix. Regardless if I’m right or wrong (bc really ill never know) it makes me feel good knowing that I’m helping someone. I don’t typically give t

    • (Accidentally hit submit) continued : I don’t typically give to the beggars on the street though. I’d much rather give a 20 to the bathroom attendant that was extremely nice an just seemed like an overall genuine person. Or the single mother in the grocery line who is paying with food stamps and didn’t have enough to cover the soda her children wanted. Instead of putting money on a number or a hand of BJ I’d MUCH rather just take care of her grocery bill and make her day. That’s when you know you are truly helping someone rather than playing the guessing game in the streets and just handing out dollars that are likely going straight to the liquor store. I get hated on by my friends for “wasting money” when I help people like that but to me it’s not a waste at all. Instead of literally throwing money away gambling, why not help someone?? Seems like a no brainier to me.

  3. I have found from recent experience that without the help from close friends and a Catholic Church recently that we could have been homeless…I lost my job poker dealing in May and have had a very hard time trying to get another one here in Biloxi..we have a small poker market. I did, however, take a job doing something I hate working in a fast food restaurant just so we wouldn’t lose everything. From what I have found that most people are too proud to take a job that is beneath them or so they think..yes, it’s hard to go from making a good living to struggling and hoping that I can pay a bill or two when my small check come in every two weeks, but I do what I have to do for my family..I have even thought about begging on the streets myself just so we don’t get too far behind. Times are rough but I have faith in myself to do what it takes to get back on the right track and appreciated all help during this difficult time. So don’t always assume the worst and help when and where you can because there a really good people who truly need any help we can give…

  4. Here’s what I do. Whenever I see someone asking for change, I don’t give them anything, but I mentally add one to a tally I keep in my head (and in a computer file so I don’t forget). Then at the end of the year, for each tally I made, I contribute $1 to a reputable charity dedicating to caring for those in our society who are less fortunate. This way I’m doing something to help in proportion to those whom I encounter while making sure my money is used effectively, helps those who really need it, and also helps those who can’t make it out to ask for money.

  5. I have the exact sentiment as you and I’m still torn for the reasons Todd mentioned. It’s not like begging on the streets is a fun gig even if it is a scam.

    Something I occasionally do is instead of giving money (which lets be honest, we probably do to appease our own conscious versus a true concern for others) is instead offer to buy them food. I have had a guy spit at my fit in disgust at my suggestion, another get mad and walk away and I watched another guy I bought food for walk back in the 7-11 and try to return the food for cash.

    Unfortunately, I’m pretty jaded at this point and haven’t offered to do anything in a long while

    There’s a local homeless shelter where I live and I asked them what I should do and they told me to never give money. Instead I could buy some bus passes from the shelter that will allow the person I give the pass to a ride to the shelter and food/shelter for the night

  6. Nolan…sorry we did not get a chance to socialize more at BARGE…as for giving money to those who ask for help at street corners, I stopped some time ago…I now give my money, including 10% of all my gambling wins, to two charities…one for homeless veterans and the other for homelss in my area…

  7. Diogenes of Sinope (fourth century BC) is too irascible a character not to share some anecdotes about him from the compendium of Diogenes Laertius on the lives of the philosophers. They illustrate the precepts by which he lived: that personal happiness is satisfied by meeting one’s natural needs and that what is natural cannot be shameful or indecent. His life, therefore, was lived with extreme simplicity, inured to want, and without shame.

    Why do people give to beggars, he was asked, but not to philosophers? “Because they think they may one day be lame or blind, but never expect that they will turn to philosophy.”

  8. After 40 years of being in the newspaper industry at the street level in Chicago, I can honestly say I have seen it all with panhandlers. For homeless people, Chicago is a great place to be, there are many dedicated organizations that offer food, shelter and a chance for the homeless to get back on their feet, with so many resources, nobody has to go without a meal.

    Life can be cruel with people ending up living in worse conditions possible, but for others panhandling is away to keep living their independent lifestyle. I see nothing wrong giving somebody a few bucks that is down on their luck, but it’s better to support the organizations that do a great job supporting them.

  9. I used to take your position but I’ve evolved to something closer to Todd’s. I don’t really need to be sure, it’s only a few bucks, won’t hurt me to give, and maybe helping someone in need is good enough. I’ve seen enough abusive overhead, people making their careers (and good ones at that) in the charity industry to be unconvinced that giving to organized charities is really better. Two more points:

    1. As for people out panhandling in Las Vegas summer heat or (elsewhere) rain, snow, extreme cold, or other challenging or dangerous conditions, they’re not lazy at all. Try doing that yourself and then call them lazy. It’s actually a pretty good signal that they really need help.

    2. The frauds should get the death penalty.

  10. After 40 years of being in the newspaper industry at the street level in Chicago, I can honestly say I have seen it all with panhandlers. For homeless people, Chicago is a great place to be, there are many dedicated organizations that offer food, shelter and a chance for the homeless to get back on their feet, with so many resources, nobody has to go without a meal.

    Life can be cruel with people ending up living in worse conditions possible, but for others panhandling is away to keep living their independent lifestyle. I see nothing wrong giving somebody a few bucks that is down on their luck, but it’s better to support the organizations that do a great job supporting them.

  11. When I lived in Chicago in the early 90’s I decided to make photographic portraits of the people who asked me for money. I gave them a $1 if they agreed to let me make their portrait. I can’t remember anyone refusing, and they usually smiled.

    Oddest incident was when I spoke with a man for a few minutes, and when I took out my wallet to give him money he pulled it from my hand. I expected him to run off with it, but he instead opened the wallet and took out the cash. I had been practicing non-resistance for a few years and decided to let him take what he wanted and not to struggle or fight with him. I stood by calmly observing, saying nothing. He looked up and said “you have been too nice to me, I shouldn’t be doing this.” He closed the wallet and handed it back to me, keeping a $20 bill for himself, leaving me with just enough to get home using the elevated train (did not have an atm card at the time). I was thankful to get my wallet back, along with a few bucks. After a short pause he said “I shouldn’t take this money, you have been too kind to me.” I replied “you need it more than I do, please keep it.” After hearing these words his face expressed panic, and he took off running fast down the street.

  12. I tend not to give money but if someone is asking for money outside of a casual restaurant or convenience store I will offer to buy them food. Occasionally I have also been known to give food I’m bringing home from restaurants to people who are asking for money for food. Obviously I can’t help everyone who asks but I’m glad to be able to help sometimes as well as to be sure that the money doesn’t go to drugs or alcohol.

  13. When living in Las Vegas, during the summer I kept a cooler with water bottles in the car, to give to the panhandlers at traffic lights. Almost without fail the response was “thanks, this is better than a dollar”. I agree the wisdom of handing over money is questionable, but providing a cold bottle of water to someone out in 100+ degree weather is not.

  14. I agree with what Todd said 100%! A while back I was going through some things & came across sold old wallets. Instead of throwing them out, I decided to put a $20 bill in each one. I kept them in my car & whenever I saw someone asking for money on the street I would give them one of the wallets. When I ran out of wallets I bought a few cheap ones & will continue to give them out.

    I also look at it the way Cory pointed out, it is like a poker read. If I feel someone is doing it as a business I will not give them anything.

  15. Thought provoking post Nolan.

    I usually will not give cash to a beggar, but if near a fast food restaurant I may buy them a meal and give it to them as I leave.

    These are tough decisions but I especially liked Todd Anderson’s approach. I only wish I was better off so I could show the same selfless generosity.

  16. I will usually buy them some food and a drink from a nearby restaurant chain. Money should be earned, but a meal can be given to anyone who is hungry or at least appears to be.

    Your link to the homeless NY beggar exposed is broken Nolan, but a quick google accessed me to the story.

    Thanks for taking the time to write out your thoughts, I thoroughly enjoy (almost) every single one!

  17. Hello Sir. You know, life can sure be funny. Or maybe you could say “God has a wicked sense of humor”. I used to walk past the homeless all the time, and certainly when they pushed their cups in/towards me, I would get upset at the intrusiveness of it. But then, after becoming homeless, what do you know? I’M that person. Tell you what, it definitely is humiliating to have to beg for help. Why people end up homeless is generally a combination of things, not just one thing. A lot of people, like myself, I found actually didn’t drink (or at least abuse it) or do any (major) drugs until they became homeless. I think the general public doesn’t usually thing this when they see a “panhandler”, or “beggar”. For me personally, it was, in the end, a blessing because I had no family to help me (they basically abandoned me when I became homeless, and having been adopted, you can imagine what that did for abandonment issues). I also ended up getting to know quite a lot of people and actually got more assistance than my own government would give me. I had a physical disability, but it isn’t that obvious, but prevents me from working heavy labor. I also worked a lot of temp jobs, which is ok for short term, but if you work them too long, you end up with no real references for future employers, as the turnover rate for those businesses is high and short-term, and they don’t keep your records for long, especially if you stop working for one. And with the economy just going bad (this was about 5 years ago, which was my length of homelessness for the most part), there wasn’t much I could do but just try to survive day to day and see what happened next. Never did I think it was going to last so long. And yes, I did increase drinking, though never touched any hard drug, especially the needle type, I hate needles! Everyone ends up doing something if they are homeless long enough. Now I only smoke. (occasionally weed, but really never been a big thing for me). I really found through the whole thing just how messed up our system is, and why there are a lot of homeless people. There is so much red tape, and we waste money as a country soo much, that it is very tough to get off the street, even if you want to and don’t have a drug problem, like in my case. If a person is suffering from a mental condition bad enough, it’s pretty much hopeless to them, and that’s the main contributor to the drinking and drugs. I of course can spot a scam in a heartbeat, especially if it’s a heroin, crack head, or just a plain scammer/thief. I don’t like this types any more than anyone else, but especially the scammers. I still don’t like people being aggressive panhandlers. Waving or saying hello, if that’s your gig, is fine, but not being pushy. I always held my sign and just stayed in one spot, and let others come to me or go by peacefully. If I felt comfortable I’d say hello or something, but never would I directly ask for help. I figured my physical presence (regardless of how I dressed) of holding a sign, and saying on it “Anything Helps! God Bless”, pretty much said it all. You can’t force people to help you. Either they can and will, or maybe they want to but just can’t (they’ll usually tell you), and you never knew when the same person that couldn’t help you before, will be able or want to help you the next time, if you didn’t give them a hard time the first time. I’ve been thanked before and gotten money from people who said they appreciated that I didn’t hassle them, and therefore they helped me. I think, in the end, the old saying that would best describe this whole thing is, you don’t know what another person’s life is like, until you have walked in their shoes. And being homeless, this can quite literally be true! You just might be walking with their shoes. LOL!!! I still sign today while I work towards the money side, but do have housing now with my very beautiful 3yr old border collie, who actually loves doing the signing with me!!!! I am writing a book and intend to help others with the proceeds if it succeeds, but I certainly will take care of myself and my dog first. One of the things that caused me to be homeless in the first place was being too generous and putting myself in a hole. It’s hard to help others when you need it so bad yourself. 🙂

  18. A couple of thoughts (I know I am late in the conversation) –

    First, if you see a beggar on the street corner stating that they need money for specific things (“Need diapers and formula for my baby” is a popular on in Worcester, MA), if you really feel you want to help them out, get the things that they need and give them those (of course, you may have to inquire about the size of diapers or type of formula). Certainly your gift may be well received, but you may be surprised to see it thrown back in your face – literally! My ex-wife once did this with someone stating that she needed money for groceries. She bought the beggar some groceries and gave them to her, only to have them pushed back at her, and the beggar yell, “I don’t want your food! Give me money!” At any rate, a good way of knowing the sincerity of the beggar’s plight.

    Secondly – put yourself in the beggar’s place (here I am speaking of mentally intact, capable people – particularly the ones who are well dressed and groomed, obviously knowing how to conduct themselves appropriately – not obviously mentally ill or intellectually disabled beggars). Suppose for a moment you have fallen on the hardest of times. You lost your job. Your spouse left you, taking one car in order to transport the children with her, selling the other car to fund her flight. You manage alone for a few months of unemployment, but your benefit is threatening to run out. Now, your house burns down. You have exhausted your bank account, and it has been closed by the bank. You have nothing, not even a place to stay. How do you respond? Do you:

    A. Go to the local welfare office to determine what aid you can get.

    B. Go to the nearest homeless shelter, thinking that maybe you can get a decent meal and a bed for the night, and try to figure out what to do in the morning.

    C. Go into a church, thinking they may help you, or at least be able to direct you toward resources where you can get help.

    D. Go to a police station, thinking they may be able to direct you toward resources where you can get help.

    E. Pick up a discarded piece of cardboard, spend your last dollar on a magic marker, and draw a sign to ask passing cars to give you money.

    F. Find a discarded paper coffee mug, and stand around the coffee shop, shaking it in people’s faces.

    Of course, this is an oversimplification of the issue, but the fact remains that, as a rule, most homeless people don’t beg, and most beggars are not homeless people.

    Furthermore, if you give money to a beggar on the street, have you really helped them? Is that dollar, or five dollars, going to help them get cleaned up so they can go and apply for a job and maybe not have to beg anymore? Will it help them find a place to live, so that they don’t sleep on the streets the next night? Or will they spend it, at best, on some hot coffee and food, and go back to begging for the rest of the day. And the next day. And the day after that. Giving to a beggar is a great way to assuage your guilty conscience, where you live with plenty alongside others who are in abject poverty. It’s also a great way to ensure that the beggar stays in that business – probably for the rest of his/her life.

    If you really want to help the street people, give money to the organizations that not only feed them and bed them down for the night, but have some focus on helping them to regain their dignity and independence. A side benefit of doing so is that the frauds won’t go there to misuse your donation, because the cons don’t want food, or a bed for the night, or help in getting a job. The cons want you to ignore the charity, and give the money to them instead.

  19. TRUTH
    I will put myself out there and display “only the facts” because I know someone personally who lives as Boca Park in Las Vegas and chooses to be a pan handler. I am a recovering addict for many years and proud of it. I live a dignified life. Because I have been in a 12 step program for many years, I have learned first hand what is REALLY GOING ON and it’s not pretty. My ex boyfriend from many years ago lives at Boca Park holding up a sign for help. He makes about 40,000 per year…. No JOKE! They have a system. There are about 5 people surrounding the area and they work as teams. They make about 400 per day and they all have cell phones. They call their drug dealer and he delivers the heroine to them daily. This is happening as we speak. They CHOOSE to live on the streets. They are all on heavy drugs and the people of our communities are oblivious to what’s really happening. These panhandlers even have food stamps. As a matter of fact they eat at Vons located on Fort Apache and Charleston every night after they “work.” They have regulars too. I have tried to help my ex and I have let go but I want the public to know the truth. They are handed 20 dollar bills regularly. My ex makes a fortune and it all goes to heroine. He was clean for one year last year and he told me 90% of homeless people are drug addicts and 10 % mentally ill. You think Boca Park is classy….? Think again. As a society we are enabling drug addicts to live comfortably on the streets. They have camp sights with blankets and pillows (this is the reality) hidden, and they have clothes, food, and just a real bad case of being dope sick. Some have homes. Frankly, it makes me so angry. In my Opinion, save your money and donate to women and children who have broken homes trying to survive in shelters. Donate food. Donate clothes and toys to innocent children and battered women trying to find their way. Let’s stop enabling the drug addicts unwilling to get help. They are playing you as the fool.

  20. I guess I’m getting jaded, but I don’t give any of them a cent. They hold up signs for hours saying they’re hungry, yet in that amount of time they could easily walk (or take a bus with their “donations”) to one of the many churches, soup kitchens, etc that gladly feed the hungry for free. So I figure anyone not willing to make a little effort to eat for free is NOT spending the money on food.

  21. No do not give money to street beggers…why should we?
    I think we are supporting their bad habit if we give money to them.


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