The Gift of Giving

What Is the Best Way To Respond to Panhandlers?

Blaise Larmee

By Ziysah von Bieberstein

Published November 19, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Is a panhandler deserving of charity or is the person a threat to public safety? I see the issue altogether differently. When a stranger asks me for money, I believe that that person is offering me the opportunity to give.

I once read that it is no more ethical to give than to receive. Confounded, I struggled with the concept for days. We have been conditioned to associate giving with righteousness and moral superiority. In truth, giving and receiving are in a delicate balance, neither being possible without the other, and neither holding more value. While we may feel a moral obligation to donate, there is a deeper reason that motivates us: It feels good to give. In order for you to experience the joy of giving, there must be someone willing to receive. So whatever your final answer is, the best way to respond when someone on the street asks you for money is to acknowledge that giving is a gift in itself: “I’m sorry, my answer is no, but thank you for asking.”

Many of us worry about what our money will be spent on; however, a gift, by definition, has no strings attached. When you give a relative a check as a birthday gift, do you tell him or her how to spend the money? If that relative bought a bottle of wine, would you despair?

Believing that panhandlers deter downtown shopping, the city of Peterborough in Ontario, where I live, was inspired by other municipalities across the United States and Canada to install “care meters” downtown. Instead of putting money in a human hand, we are encouraged to place our spare change into a brightly painted parking meter. The money is reportedly shared by various local social service agencies.

The care meters were erected despite the fact that food banks, shelters and community groups already offer the basics to those in need. Spare change, unlike a social service, can be used for anything: for a birthday gift, or for a coffee in a cafe instead of in a church basement. Maybe it will be spent on alcohol, just like the average person’s disposable income. If you have some change to offer, that’s great, but it doesn’t confer upon you the right to control or to judge.

Do we really need to have our human interactions mediated by parking meters? If you feel put off, annoyed or righteous when you are asked for money, it may be an indication that you need to look more closely at your own defensiveness and insecurity. I don’t despair when I see people asking for money downtown; instead, my heart is warmed with gratitude at our humanity, our ability to connect and to offer each other the opportunity to give and to receive.

If you want to address systemic issues that lead to homelessness, then donate to an organization that is doing that work. But when you meet a panhandler, remember that the person is asking for a gift, not a savior.

Ziysah von Bieberstein is a parent, activist and spoken word artist living in Peterborough, Ontario.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.