- Phone: (202) 558-9745
- Mailing Address: 1616 7th St, NW, Washington DC, 20001
The most important thing to remember when engaging with someone panhandling is to not ignore them. People who are experiencing homelessness and/or asking for help on the street are used to being overlooked, at best, and harassed, at worst. Daily they are belittled and dehumanized, made to feel invisible, or even criminalized. So you can make an important difference if you look them in the eye, give them a nod or a smile, or engage them in conversation. Recognizing and affirming the image of God within them is the most important response you can make.
Beyond that, there are a lot of appropriate ways to engage. I invite you to ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, so you can be sure you’re responding from a place of spiritual love rather than fleshly instinct. And if you feel led or compelled to give something, give. If you don’t have anything to give or choose not to, clear eye contact, a smile, and an acknowledgement such as “I’m sorry, I’m not able to give anything today” is okay too. Just don’t lie to them.
That said, if you don’t feel comfortable giving money, that’s okay. The moment we give someone money, we are relinquishing control over how they spend it. And many people are not comfortable with that. Instead, you can begin a practice of carrying small gift cards or granola bars around with you to hand out. Or maybe a SmarTrip card with some credit on it to get to a shelter or food distribution site. In extreme weather, you can offer a blanket or a water bottle. I often ask if I can buy something for people in a nearby store. There are plenty of ways to tangibly help without giving cash.
And especially if you start to see the same people repeatedly, I encourage you to introduce yourself, ask their name, and get to know them. Take some time to build a relationship. Imagine what you could learn from one another! Make sure you’re in a safe situation and set appropriate boundaries, of course, but cultivating relationships is rarely the wrong decision. And, through relationship you can connect them with resources that can provide long-term support.
This is a piece written by a formerly homeless individual that really helped me in understanding some of the emotions and experiences people are going through when asking strangers for help.
Last year, Pope Francis gave an interview that has helped shape some of my view of a Christ-like response to people asking for money.
Here is Pastor John Piper's response to a question about how to engage with people who are panhandling. He encourages compassion, generosity, and relationship.
Information from DC government about shelter locations and a phone number to call to request shelter information (and transportation, during extreme weather)