Questions You're Afraid to Ask When Dealing with the Homeless

Please know that some of these answers may be tough, but they've been time tested and observed in real life situations for over a decade. We pray that they may lead you into a deeper understanding of homelessness and what you can do to help.

Question 1: What Should I Do About the 'Will Work for Food' Guy?

I know you have seen him; he is holding a sign that says 'Will Work for Food.' The sign usually ends with 'God Bless.' So the question I get sometimes is "What should I do? Should I give him/her money?" Let me start by explaining a few dynamics that you may not realize.

First, the term used for holding a sign in this way is known as “flying a sign” in the streets. It's also common knowledge that you can make $200 or more per day doing it.

Let me help you break the words down. In most cases there are two misstatements in that sign.

'Will Work' In most cases the person flying the sign is not trying to get a job. Why would they? They are making more flying that sign than they would working a minimum wage job. Let me give you something to chew on for a minute: by giving that person money, you may be preventing them from even considering working. It’s simple supply and demand. If you don’t give them money then they might have to actually get a job.

'For Food' Most people who fly a sign are not buying food with the money you give them. If you knew what they were spending your money on you would probably keep your money. If you wouldn’t hand someone a beer or drugs then I suggest you don’t hand him or her a dollar.

'God Bless' Those words are on the sign for their benefit of making you feel guilty. They want you to think about God and your responsibility to help the poor.

So what should you do when you see this sign? Come back next week when we will address "What Should I Do When People Approach Me for Money?"

Question 2: If I’m Approached for Money, What Should I Do?

Perhaps you've see someone with a “Will Work for Food” sign, or, as you head in or out of a store, someone asks you for money. What should you do? The easy thing is to hand the person money. It gets you off the hook from interacting with them and you can feel good that you helped them... but have you helped them? I’ve talked to many people who have panhandled and it's not easy or fun. Nobody wakes up in the morning and says, "Goodie! I get to 'fly a sign!'" Each time you panhandle, you lose a little bit of your dignity. I talked to one guy who said the first time he started panhandling he felt like he had given away all of his self-esteem to do it. So what should you do? I suggest if you want to help, maybe you could ask "What do you need?" This will show that you are actually interested in helping and it’s a more dignified way to treat the person. Let me ask the question this way: If your friend ask for some money, do you just hand it to them or do you ask "What do you need?" You will probably ask because you want to sincerely help your friend. Maybe you are the person who has it within their means to truly help this person get what they truly need.

Another thing you might think about doing is keeping some water and crackers in your car. If the sign says "Will Work for Food," then maybe you can hand them food. Although this might not be a good idea in every circumstance, maybe you could take them to lunch/dinner and actually share a meal. It is way easier to give a meal then to share a meal. This kind of service is important because it shows an investment, not only of money, but your time. The cool thing about this kind of interaction is you can actually learn someone’s name and maybe learn something about his or her life. Watch out! You might even make a new friend.

I know you don’t have time for that, but I didn’t say this was going to be easy.

Question 3: Does Most of My Donation Money Go to Pay for Salaries?

I totally understand this question. If I’m donating to an organization I want to make sure that my money goes to help the people that the organization serves. Let me just start by saying that most people who decide to work at non-profits are not planning on being wealthy; they got into this kind of work because they want to make a difference in the world. As a paid non-profit professional, there are times that I wish I were wealthy enough not to have to take a pay check. If you work for a non-profit that helps homeless people, you see people suffering every day. Secondly, there are some jobs within a non-profit that need to be staffed by a paid professional. Within PiN we are volunteer driven; however, there are positions that need to be staffed in order for the organization to continue to serve the people we serve.

I think the better question to ask is how much of my donation goes directly to help the clients the organization serves. At PiN, over 87% of your donation dollars go directly to services that help the homeless. We work hard to keep our administration cost low in order to make your donation dollar go even further. The other good thing about donating to PIN is that although we are a ministry, we run like a business. We want to make sure that we are getting a return on your investment in our ministry.

I remember at one time we had a young couple that was struggling to pay their own bills but were still donating $25 each month. Every time we spend a dollar I imagine that it’s this young couples money.

Question 4: If I Chose NOT to Donate, Would it Really Make that Big of a Difference?

This is one of the biggest reasons I hear people say they don’t want to donate. The population of Virginia Beach is about 450,000 people. If every person in Virginia Beach gave $1 a month to PIN to help the homeless that would be 5.4 million dollars a year to provide services to the homeless. I almost can’t fathom the amount of good PiN could do with 5.4 million a year, and I believe with this amount of money everyone who wanted services would receive them.

PiN doesn’t receive any money from the federal government, state government, or city government, which means that we have more of a reliance on people donating to us. Actually, 30% of PIN’s funding comes from people who write us a check each month ranging from $25 to $100. If we are going to expand our recovery groups, expand our medical clinic, start a job training program, and eventually have shelter for people to who are homeless, we will need more individuals to become a PiN partner.

A PiN Partner is someone who decides that they can no longer sit there and do nothing while people don't have a place inside to sleep at night. A PiN Partner has decided to make a difference in a person’s life and give them another chance at a new life. A PIN partner wants to play a part in changing the world. You can become a PiN Partner today.

Question 5: Isn’t There a Government Program to Help Them?

This is a question I hear sometimes. I do agree that there is a place and a role for the government to play in helping the poor; however, we should not expect the government to be the primary source for helping the poor. Proverbs 19:17 says, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord and he will reward them for what they have done” (NIV). Instead of asking what the government is doing I think we should be asking what we can do. I actually believe that faith-based non-profits should be in the lead to implementing service for the homeless. PiN currently provides two recovery groups a week and we have seen some amazing success. I would argue that there are no government programs having the kind of success that we are having. That is why we are trying to expand our recovery groups to seven days a week. In the next 12 months we are hoping to raise $70,000 to start a Job Training program to help homeless people transform their lives.

Although PiN doesn’t receive any government money, we do work with Virginia Beach City government to better serve the homeless population. We also help the homeless locate and get help through human services.

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