Giving Money to Homeless People Is Okay

If you feel the urge to give money and you feel safe, then it’s perfectly fine.

If you feel the urge to give money and you feel safe, then it’s perfectly fine.

On one of my road trips around the country, I was walking downtown in Salt Lake City handing out socks to people experiencing homelessness. I happened to run across a young man with a backpack who had a look of hopelessness in his eyes. I asked him about homelessness and he responded that not only was it his 18th birthday, but that it was his first day homeless. Without even thinking about it, I opened my wallet and handed the young man all the money I had on me — two $20 bills.

Contrary to popular belief, giving money to homeless people is okay.

Yes, the official stance of the homeless services sector is: don’t give money to panhandlers. Instead, they recommend money be given to them to help end homelessness. While I agree everyone should support community services working to end homelessness, the answer is not so black and white.

The truth is giving money to homeless people depends on the circumstances. If you feel the urge to give money and you feel safe, then it’s perfectly fine.

Give Without Worry

Pope Francis recently said it’s okay to give homeless people money and we should not worry about doing so. The Pope also said “the way of giving is as important as the gift. You should not simply drop a bill into a cup and walk away. You must stop, look the person in the eyes, and touch his or her hands.”

Oftentimes, we don’t take the time to listen and learn what a person may truly need. This is frequently the case even when a person is plainly stating their needs.

A homeless friend once shared a story about when he needed a toothbrush. He stood in front of a grocery store displaying a sign asking for money to buy the toothbrush. It wasn’t long before people started to give him food. He gratefully accepted multiple bags of fast food meals as he tried to collect money to buy a toothbrush. He set the bags next to him. Although it was clear he had already been given food, people continued to give him more. He never was able to purchase the toothbrush he needed.

In this situation, my homeless friend was clearly communicating his need. But the givers either were not listening or chose not to because they have been told not to give money to panhandlers. The thing is, with food stamps a person cannot buy toilet paper, toothpaste, a toothbrush and other hygienic needs. It takes money.

Stop Blaming the Individual

People experiencing homelessness are human beings. We should treat them with respect. But too often we view the homeless person asking for money as a bum or con artist. We blame homelessness on the person when their situation could be caused by a variety of reasons: lack of affordable housing, lack of a living wage, or some kind of trauma.

“Panhandlers use money to purchase drugs or alcohol.” This is also a common belief stopping people from giving money to panhandlers. Let’s think about that: if you’re going to the bathroom behind a dumpster in a McDonald’s parking lot, life sucks. You might as well have a beer!

Please know I have 21 years sober and I am not advocating for alcohol abuse in any way. I am just trying to show a little perspective. It’s hard to be homeless. Alcohol and drugs offer an escape from the pain.

When I lived on the streets of Los Angeles, I survived by panhandling. At times, I did use the money for drugs, but I had a severe drug addiction. I needed drugs like I needed air or I would get dope sick. If I got dope sick, I would be vulnerable. If I was vulnerable sleeping in a park, I could die. In a way, the people who gave me money helped to save my life!

We often look the other way when people we know abuse drugs: The soccer mom who hits the bottle to get through the day; your brother-in-law who drinks a case of beer on the weekend; the lawyer who smokes the pipe filled with crack; and the postal worker popping a few pills to help make their rounds. But when it’s a person experiencing homelessness, we look down upon them.

Homeless People Need Money for Basic Needs

The real truth is not every homeless person abuses drugs and alcohol.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration estimates 38% of homeless people are dependent on alcohol and 26% abuse other drugs. More often than not, a person experiencing homelessness will use money to meet their basic needs like food and shelter.

A study on panhandling conducted in San Francisco’s Union Square district reported that 94% of the money was used to purchase food. The survey also found 60% of panhandlers made $25 a day or less, breaking the myth that beggars make large amounts of money panhandling.

Many people I meet raise money to get a room for the night, especially in cold weather. Numerous shelters now charge money for a bed every night. Although I don’t agree with this, I understand as homeless services are receiving less support. By charging, they make a few bucks to provide services. However, the people they are charging don’t have an income; this forces them to panhandle to get inside.

Tips for Interacting with a Panhandler

Here are a few tips to consider when interacting with a person experiencing homelessness:

  • Make eye contact. It’s hard to be homeless and being ignored can be painful. Make eye contact and greet the person with a hello or good morning.
  • If you feel like giving money than give. It’s okay. Like Pope Francis said “it’s okay to give homeless people money and we should not worry about doing so.”
  • Keep in mind your safety must come first. Do not open your purse or take out your wallet if you feel it may be dangerous.
  • If you don’t feel like giving money, simply say “sorry.” It’s never a good practice to lie and say you don’t have anything.
  • If you’re not the type to give money than an alternative is to carry a few pairs of socks to hand out. I walk around with Hanes socks in my backpack. When someone asks me for money, I normally hand each person two pairs of new socks. It’s a great way to start a conversation and get to know the individual. Carry socks in your purse, briefcase or glovebox. Other items to give include gift cards or bus tokens, but I find socks are needed and easy to carry.
  • There are occasions when a homeless person is overly aggressive, has severe mental health issues or is intoxicated. If you don’t feel safe, don’t engage with the person. However, remember to have compassion as to why they may act that way.
  • Last but far from least is to simply listen. Homelessness is horrible, and people experiencing homelessness are often in crisis. They may have a simple need that you can help with. You just have to start a conversation and listen.

C3 Is Proof LA County Can End Homelessness

c3 team on skid row

Imagine you’re homeless. You live in a tent in a park. You don’t have any real income or transportation. You hear that a nonprofit has services that may help you get out of homelessness, or maybe an outreach worker told you about a housing opportunity.

You then panhandle to get on a bus to access badly-needed services. You arrive early to avoid any lines. The person at the front desk gives you a bunch of paperwork to fill out.

It’s the same paperwork you filled out the last time you tried to get help with a different agency. And the time before that. You wait several hours until your name is called. A case manager outlines the intake process with you. If you’re lucky, you’ll be placed on a waiting list. If you’re really lucky, they’ll give you bus tokens so you can get back to your tent. But chances are, you’ll have to panhandle to get back to where you feel safe to sleep.

All this to just do it again the next day, and the next, and the next. Panhandle for bus fare. Fill out the same forms. Wait for hours in a lobby to be called in to have an intake done. Placed on a waiting list — and that’s only if you’re lucky.

The homeless services system does not make it easy for someone to get out of homelessness. We place an extreme amount of the burden of acquiring support on a person who has limited resources and is fighting to survive.

We Need Better Support SolutionsVote Yes on Measure H

I have traveled to different cities and interviewed hundreds of people experiencing homelessness. The one constant in every situation is the insane amount of times a homeless person has tried to access services for help, yet didn’t get the support needed. This creates Learned Helplessness.

Learned Helplessness is a condition in which a person suffers from a sense of powerlessness arising from a traumatic event or persistent failure to succeed. It is thought to be one of the underlying causes of depression.

homeless woman in LA

Jossalyn has lived on the streets of Los Angeles for 15 years!

You may remember Jossalyn. She has been on the streets of Los Angeles for 15 years. I have wanted nothing more than to help her get into housing.

I researched and found all the right places to go. I shared the referral information with her. However, Jossalyn has a mental illness and suffers from anxiety. Besides not having money or transportation, she cannot sit in an office waiting to be seen.

After a long conversation with her, I realized the only way for her to get help is if someone came to her and helped her navigate through the bureaucracy.

It is unrealistic to support an approach requiring a person with no income, no transportation and potential mental illness or drug addiction to travel to service agency locations to receive help. But that’s been the model in homeless services for a long time. Set aside the fact that many agencies in a Continuum of Care (CoC) help with specific needs; so a client has to travel to different locations to obtain assistance with both housing and healthcare, for example.

Sometimes agencies will have an outreach team that can transport clients between services. However, this is not cost-effective as you have staff from one agency waiting with a client to be seen by another agency.

An Effective Solution Is Producing Results — Vote Yes on Measure H

In my last post, I believe we can end homelessness, I wrote about the disconnect that exists between homeless service agencies. I also addressed how the City of Los Angeles and LA County, along with many other stakeholders have made significant improvements in communication and collaboration to develop a community-wide solution to ending homelessness.

C3: City, County, Community program is a key example of how City of Los Angeles and LA County are finding creative ways to build systems and reduce barriers to save lives and taxpayer money. C3 is a multidisciplinary and multiagency program made up of a dedicated team of service providers from the County’s Department of Mental Health, Health Services, Substance Abuse Prevention & Control, as well as Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) and Americorps staff.

Instead of the unrealistic approach of having homeless people travel to services, C3 brings the services to the person in need. These teams include a nurse, a mental health clinician, and a substance abuse counselor. Because it is multiagency, barriers created by bureaucracy are greatly reduced. The homeless person gets the help they need right away and at an overall lower cost.

I recently joined the original C3 team on Skid Row. It is very exciting to see the model in action and experience the community collaboration. Learn more about how the C3 team effects change in this short interview with Sara Shortt, Director of the C3 Program on Skid Row.

Being able to deliver all services a homeless person may need rather than having them travel to different offices is invaluable. And it is producing results. In 2016, the C3 team on Skid Row was able to house 158 people and connected 326 more people to housing who will be getting indoors soon.

Measure H Will Help End Homelessness — Vote Yes on Measure H

The next step is implementing C3 teams throughout Los Angeles County. Measure H is the catalyst needed to achieve widespread results, ultimately saving lives and ending homelessness.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has placed Measure H on the March 7 ballot. Funded through a proposed ¼-cent County sales tax, Measure H would generate approximately $355 million annually to be used exclusively on these proven efforts that reduce and prevent homelessness.

If approved, Measure H will help an estimated 45,000 families and individuals move from homelessness to permanent housing within the first five years. It would also enable 30,000 more to avoid becoming homeless.

By voting YES on Measure H, you will help support an initiative that provides resources people with permanently disabling conditions need.

By voting YES, you will help ensure valuable resources are allocated sensibly.

By voting YES, you will help end the homelessness crisis that is certain to grow if changes are not made.

Help people get off the streets and save their lives. Vote YES on Measure Hon March 7.

Watch the C3 Team on Skid Row in action. This video includes a tour of Skid Row Sobering Center, another city and county collaboration aiming to end homelessness. In addition to helping patients get sober, restart their lives and find transitional housing, the sobering center provides appropriate care for inebriated individuals who would otherwise be brought to emergency care facilities.

I Believe Los Angeles Can End Homelessness

mark horvath homeless

Yup that’s me! A little over 21 years ago, I lived on the streets of Los Angeles homeless and helpless. I sold photos of my pet Iguana to tourists in front of the Chinese Theater to survive. Los Angeles Police Officers called me “Lizard Man”, and “The Lizard Man of Hollywood Blvd” was born.

Hard to imagine that prior to homelessness I had a great job in television syndication. But due to a severe drug problem, I ended up homeless.

I rebuilt my life, buying a three-bedroom house with a new car in the garage. I had a pool in the backyard and a cushy marketing job with success on the horizon. Then the economy crashed and I lost everything again except my sobriety.

In the fall of 2008, the only job I could find was a three-month temporary position working at the Glendale Winter Shelter. I was eventually hired on fulltime as an outreach case manager. During the winter months, my position shifted to family outreach case manager. For the next four years, I worked in homeless services helping those experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles.

 mark horvath and lannyMe as an outreach worker with Lanny, who we were able to get into housing. Click here to watch his story.

During that time, I began using social media to empower homeless people to share their own stories. To end homelessness, we need to listen to the experts. And the experts are people experiencing homelessness: living in a tent, under a bridge, in a car or at a weekly-rate hotel not fit for children.

My work quickly took off and I founded Invisible People, a digital storytelling platform exposing the realities of homelessness and solutions to end it. Invisible People is the only education-based nonprofit working on a national level to educate people about homelessness to affect policy change.

Over the last decade, I have traveled to more than 300 cities meeting thousands of people experiencing homelessness. I have worked with foreign, national and local governments along with homeless service providers around the world.

Breaking Through the Bureaucratic Wall

When I worked as an LA-based outreach case manager, the bureaucracy was maddening. There was always a struggle to get people to work together. I used to say the miracle wasn’t that a person got off the streets, but that the system actually worked. A lot of well-intentioned people were giving their all to end homelessness. However, there was little coordination between communities and service providers.

Prime example: Los Angeles County is divided up into eight Service Planning Areas (SPA). Simply put, a SPA is a specific geographic region within the county. Eight years ago, there was an attempt to get a single coordinated intake form for all homeless service providers to use within the eight SPAs. However, no one would agree or compromise, so it never went anywhere.

united way home for good
Christine Margiotta, VP at United Way of Greater Los Angeles speaking to SPAs about coordinated entry.

In 2013, I remember walking into United Way of Greater Los Angeles and seeing all eight SPAs working together to develop a coordinated entry process. To me, it was a miracle — you would have thought I saw the tooth fairy.

MEDIA: To read the post I wrote about that day click here.

A New Hope — We Can End Homelessness

I currently live in Syracuse, NY where I help take care of my mother. But my heart and passion to end homelessness will always be in Los Angeles. I visit as often as I can. Because I leave for extended periods of time, I return to the city I love with new eyes. While I see how homelessness has spread, I also see the positive changes being made to end it.

A lot of progress has been made since 2013. This past November, I was honored to attend the Annual Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Homelessness Convening. The guest list included many stakeholders working to end homelessness in Los Angeles.

During this event, I learned the city and county were working together and collaboration between nonprofits was being embraced. Homeless service organizations talked about the need for flex funding and peer support programs. The emphasis was on providing homeless people with adequate support so they not only survive, but thrive after being placed into housing. I was thrilled to see a new Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) actively listening to community nonprofits.

 

County Supervisor Kathryn Barger speaking at County of Los Angeles Homeless Initiative.

On Feb. 8, I attended the first annual Homeless Initiative Conference County of Los Angeles. I thought seeing all the SPAs in one room working together was astonishing in 2013. This event, with representatives from many of the 88 cities in Los Angeles County along with homeless service providers was truly a miracle. There was a spirit of collaboration I have never seen in any other community. Most importantly, Los Angeles County was actively listening to the municipal representatives and homeless service providers. It was truly a huge step in the right direction to end homelessness.

Working Together — Vote Yes to Measure H

There was never a united strategy. This is one of the main reasons homelessness has spread in Los Angeles County. We needed one coordinated plan involving all stakeholders working together to end homelessness. Now there is!

Barriers that used to work against getting people off the streets have been removed. The top-down momentum combined with key leaders listening to the people doing the work can end homelessness in Los Angeles County.

Now we need your help.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has placed Measure H on the March 7 ballot. Funded through a proposed ¼-cent County sales tax, Measure H would generate approximately $355 million annually to be used exclusively on proven efforts that reduce and prevent homelessness. These efforts include mental health, housing services, job counseling and substance abuse treatment.

If approved, Measure H will help an estimated 45,000 families and individuals move from homelessness to permanent housing within the first five years. It would also enable 30,000 more to avoid becoming homeless.

By voting YES to Measure H, you will help support an initiative that reduces and prevents homelessness.

I believe with all of my heart that Los Angeles County can and will end homelessness. Do people have emergencies? Yes. Do people sleep for days in between places? Of course. But the kind of homelessness most people are familiar with is the kind we can end. These instances can be prevented when our system provides the resources to care for people with permanently disabling conditions. Approving Measure H will provide the services to end AND prevent homelessness.

Help people get off the streets. Save their lives. Vote YES to Measure H on March 7.

Homelessness Is Our Tragedy

Her smile is beaming. You can see she feels genuine pride as she reflects on this time in her life. She even carries pictures of herself taken during her service in the United States Marines. Completing two tours in Iraq, Lanette thrived in the military lifestyle and the structure it offered.

female homeless veteran

Civilian life has not been as easy. Suffering from PTSD, Lanette found personal and work relationships challenging. She turned to Spice, a dangerous drug, to try and feel better. This led to her current circumstance: homeless and living in her car near Inglewood.

Lanette is one tragedy. But she is not the only one in crisis. There were roughly 46,874 others experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles County alone last year.
This tragedy, our tragedy is even more amplified. Homeless people are dying in our community when death could have been prevented.

According to Mark, who became homeless after losing his job, three people died recently within his homeless community alone. The heartbreak is very personal for Mark. His girlfriend, who lived in the tent behind him, was one of the casualties.

homeless man in manchester square
Living in an encampment at Manchester Square area near LAX, Mark says people are contracting phenomena. They are getting sick from mold that is growing in their damp tents.

If these victims had been living in proper housing, their deaths could have been avoided. Yet the number of people experiencing homelessness rises annually, putting more people at risk of dying. In Los Angeles County, the number of people living in encampments, tents and vehicles increased by 20% from 2015 to 2016 and a staggering 123% from 2013 to 2016.

There is hope and that is you. By voting YES to Measure H, you will help support an initiative that reduces and prevents homelessness. You can help people get off the streets and save their lives.

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has placed Measure H on the March 7 ballot. Funded through a proposed ¼-cent County sales tax, Measure H would generate approximately $355 million annually to be used exclusively on proven efforts that reduce and prevent homelessness. These efforts include mental health, housing services, job counseling and substance abuse treatment.

Measure H will help an estimated 45,000 families and individuals move from homelessness to permanent housing within the first five years. It would also enable 30,000 more to avoid becoming homeless. People like Miranda.

homeless woman los angeles

 

Miranda was evicted from her apartment two years ago with no option but the streets. She has been homeless in West Los Angeles ever since. In the last few months, Miranda says she has been forced to move the location of her tent six times. While I was talking to her, a man pulled up in a BMW yelling at her to leave the area. But where can she go?

Vote Measure H and you will be helping people like Lanette, Mark and Miranda. Living on the streets is living in critical danger. Help end the crisis now before it becomes worse.

To learn more about the Los Angeles homeless crisis and Measure H, visit VoteYesOnH.com and follow me on social media where I am sharing stories about our neighbors experiencing homelessness.

Who Do We Call When a Homeless Person Needs help?

Homelessness Is a Nationwide Crisis That Must Be Addressed.

A lot can happen in 15 years: You attend college. You get a new job. You rent your first apartment. You get married, start a family, buy a house. For Jossalyn, little has happened. She has spent the past 15 years homeless.

Like many others I meet on the streets, Jossalyn has fallen through the gaps in the safety net. She is surviving now, but how long will it be before Jossalyn becomes critically vulnerable?

I’m reminded of a question Nancy Lublin and her daughter asked me repeatedly on a recent tour of Skid Row. Besides 911, who can people call when they see a homeless person needing help? And there are people in dire need of homeless services everywhere.

injured homeless man in parkAn elderly gentleman lies on a park bench with a head injury. You ask if he is alright; he slurs that he is fine and waves you on. It becomes clear that he is intoxicated, most likely homeless and in need of medical help.

In another city, a man asks if you can spare some money. You notice he has severe, deep sores on his arms that require medical attention.

Using cardboard as flooring, a woman sits on a city street. You can clearly see a large tumor growing on her abdomen as she struggles. She needs urgent help.

These are actual people suffering in cities across the country. Any decent person wants to call a professional to help. But who do you call?

More Support Needed for Homeless Services

Some municipalities have homeless response teams providing outreach to those in need. In Philadelphia, for example, the city partners with Project Home offering a 24-Hour Homeless Outreach Hotline and an emergency response team will be dispatched.

In Pittsburgh, one can call Jim Withers, a doctor that goes out on the streets to help homeless people.

The Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program is another amazing service. Of course, Massachusetts has healthcare funding for chronic homeless.

In LA, they have started C3 teams in different areas of the city that have mental health, nurses, housing and other stakeholders going out on the streets together. This is a huge step in the right direction, but services still need to be expanded significantly.

In other cities, emergency response numbers are provided for people to call. But the cities lack resources to send an outreach team to help. You can call the number, but no help will be provided.  Not to mention an outreach worker is powerless without support services to plug people into.

Most cities don’t offer emergency response at all. There is simply not enough money to provide needed support for homeless people in cities big and small. More funding is needed for homeless services.

Existing services also need to be extended. Many homeless services only operate from 9a to 5p Monday through Friday. However, the majority of homeless crises happen at night.

I support the shift over the last few years of targeting the most vulnerable with the limited resources available. But if we are ever going to truly end homelessness, we need to figure out how to get everyone off the streets.

The longer a person remains homeless, the more vulnerable they become. This leads to a greater need, which far outweighs the resources.

Real Solutions Needed for People Like Jossalyn

I have been in a few conversations trying to find a solution for Jossalyn.

While she receives general relief (welfare), which is not enough to pay any rent, she most likely does not qualify for supportive housing. Rapid Rehousing funds, if available, are only temporary. And, the theory behind Radpid Rehousing programs is a person will be able to support themselves in a given amount of time.

Jossalyn is smart and articulate; she is not on drugs, she is not disabled or on SSI, nor does she have a visible mental illness. She does have a felony on her record and therefore has run into obstacles trying to get a job. In addition, she is a senior and she is black. She has also lived in the streets far too long.

I believe she’d be a great worker after a little time and healing, but who is going to hire her with a wage that she can support herself?

In every community, we need an emergency response for people to call when they see a homeless person who needs help. We also need better programs for people like Jossalyn to get everyone off the streets before they become vulnerable. Nationwide, we need real solutions to homelessness, not more shelter programs. We need housing and support services.

Funding is the issue. Support for homeless services must be a priority.

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