Beggars on the Streets of San Francisco

We were walking up Columbus to breakfast this morning. As we came to a corner, a well-dressed Asian man came out of a coffee shop carrying two steaming cups. A gaunt beggar stepped toward him and held out his hand saying, “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?”

The Asian man threw back his head and laughed loudly. “That's funny,” he said, striding away. He laughed again.

“I hope you're never poor and hungry,” the beggar muttered under his breath. His eyes caught mine. “Can you lend me some money for breakfast?” he asked. I looked away and walked on, embarrassed.

The streets of San Francisco are filled with beggars. Portland has them, too, but not like this. Here there seem to be one or two on every block. (I know that's an exaggeration, but that's how it feels.) In Portland they're mostly scraggly older white men. Here they come in every age, type, and color.

Off the top of my head, I've seen:

  • A man in a wheelchair selling his “art” along Fisherman's Wharf.
  • A man in Haight-Ashbury holding a cardboard sign reading “Need $ for Weed”. He was gregarious, stopping people to chat with them. He was making a lot of money.
  • Another man holding a sign that said “Dollars for Booze”
  • A grizzled middle-aged man sprawled on Haight, disoriented. Another beggar was crouching next to him. “You okay, man?” he was saying. “I'll get you help. Here's all I've made today.” And he poured his coins into the other man's cup. The sick man tried to hug him. “I'll be back with help,” said the benevolent beggar.
  • In Chinatown, every block had an old Chinese man playing a two-stringed bowed instrument (something from the erhu family?). The streets were filled with strange music.

Beggars are a moral quandary for me. I want to help. In an ideal world, I'd help them all. Or I'd at least help those who are legitimately in trouble. But how can I tell which beggars are truly needy, and which are just going to use the money for booze or pot? Does it matter? And who am I to judge?

It might seem silly to write about this — it's such a trivial part of personal finance (if a part of it at all) — but I think it presents important moral implications. I know many people are opposed to giving money to beggars ever, and I cannot blame them. I'm always reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46), which reads in part:

For I hungered, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee? Then shall he answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me.

Last night I was in a great mood. I'd just had a great meal — clam chowder, fresh crab, a few ribs — and was walking back to the hotel. I passed a one-eyed black man holding a styrofoam cup outside a 7-11. “Change?” he whispered. “Change?” I stopped, pivoted, dug in my pocket and gave him all the change I've accumulated on this trip so far. “God bless you, brother,” the man whispered. And I walked on.

I wish I could do more.

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baker
baker
14 years ago

Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. But if you are funding their drug habit, is that so great? Is it better to assume that they really will buy medicine, food, etc. with your dollar or two, or are tehy looking for their next fix, or a tax free income? Locally, we’ve got a guy who raps (“Help is on the way” – if you know that, you know where I’m at). Supposedly, he’s got a great house (rented, mind you), a motorcycle, an Audi and plenty of… Read more »

Kevin
Kevin
14 years ago

When I worked in DC for a summer, I was constantly approached by beggars on the street. At first, I gave what I could. After awhile, I couldn’t afford it. What I resolved to do was join a food bank and work from there. The only time I gave money after that was to buy a bottled water or two when it was hot outside. I do have a soft spot in my heart for musicians as my dad made a good amount of money across from the DC museums when I was young. I will give them what I… Read more »

Brett
Brett
14 years ago

I always hated the uncomfortable moment that the beggar puts me in by being there, presenting themselves, causing me to feel inconsiderate or selfish. Then I gave a bunch of money (hundreds over a couple months) in Berkeley to a guy like this who had me convinced that he just needed to get “over the hump” and get a job he was applying for but needed clothes, shelter, etc. I gave him my steel-toe workboots, rides around town, bring him up to my apartment for talks. Then I realized he was just scamming me and was “working” other folks in… Read more »

Andy
Andy
14 years ago

Matthew 25:31-46 is a passage that haunts me. If you’ve ever listened to Keith Green’s “The Sheep and The Goats,” you know why. I used to feel the same way you did about not knowing who to help or when. So one day, I decided to do something about. I volunteered at a local community center that is also a soup kitchen and church. They give people financial assistance, counseling, etc. The point is that my helping at the community center, no matter how insignificant or unnoticed, builds toward a greater good of helping the neediest in my community. We… Read more »

Jen
Jen
14 years ago

If you do want to help, get your leftovers from your meals out wrapped up and give them to the people begging on the street. If they’re hungry, they’ll take it. Of course, most of the time they come up with a reason why they really need money instead.

dabrfe
dabrfe
14 years ago

Ministering to the homeless is something close to my heart (I serve on the board of a homeless ministry in my city). My wife and I have long had a policy of never giving out cash on the street, but rather we directly support those ministries and organizations that are treating and fighting homelessness. Organizations have the experience to more wisely minister to the homeless than most of us could do, so my recommendation is, if you feel moved to do something to help, consider contributing time, talents, and money to an organization so dedicated. When you are on vacation,… Read more »

Dave
Dave
14 years ago

I quite often keep a granola bar or an apple or something in my bag and when I get asked for change I offer that up instead. I can only remember once when someone actually accepted it. One time I offered a guy and apple and he scowled at me and gave me a sharp “no”! I stopped and gave him a puzzled look. He looked at me and smiled and said, “I ain’t go no teef.” He infact, had no teeth.

dzitran
dzitran
14 years ago

I agree. My rule of thumb is to give food, and not money. Money can be used for drugs, booze, etc (as mentioned above).

anne
anne
14 years ago

I also live in Berkeley, and have for 5 years now. I can probably count on two hands the number of times I’ve given change to someone on the street. Your estimate is not unreasonable – certainly in Berkeley you are likely to see several people on every corner downtown asking for money. I’ve come to the conclusion that Berkeley is a pretty good place to be homeless. The city, local businesses and various non-profits provide free meals, clothing, needles, and even free healthcare (I believe on a lottery basis). The weather is mild. I give up leftovers readily, but… Read more »

Brian
Brian
14 years ago

Great post. I love your question of what part of personal finance does giving money to beggers play. Maybe a future post on frugal living and philanthropy is in order?

I too share your anguish. On the streets of Cleveland OH there are many needy persons. While I don’t give away much in terms of money, I try to volunteer my time frequently and be as generous as possible.

Matt
Matt
14 years ago

I volunteered at a homeless shelter in college, stayed overnight, helped cook meals, etc. Here’s something that I missed on these message boards that’s really important to remember: an overwhelming number of the homeless have a debilitating mental illness of some kind. The reason they might drink or use drugs is quite literally self-medication; if you hit a rough patch in life and you couldn’t afford a therapist, how would you silence the demons in your head? It’s really said that they get labelled as junkies or alcoholics, when really they’re just mentally ill.

Guy
Guy
14 years ago

Maybe I am rather callous, but I never give anything to beggars here in the Netherlands. I live in a country which has a more than decent social safety net for everyone who’se life takes a downhill. The Dutch citizens are paying for it by way of our humongous taxes.
If you need it there is help for you, you just have to be willing to take it. I paid the taxes, I’ve done my part. The rest is up to them.

baker
baker
14 years ago

I have to say I love everyone’s responses – volunteering your time (time *IS* money as they say…) is worth a lot more then a couple bucks on uncertainty.

I don’t think (insert_religious_figure_here) was thinking how much money we can give to help out the leser of our brothers and sisters, but what we do to help them.

Rhea
Rhea
14 years ago

I once assessed whether a person asking for money ‘needed it’ or not. Now I don’t. I assume if they are asking for it, they need it.

Alex
Alex
14 years ago

Wow. That’s the best post I’ve ever seen on this blog.

L
L
14 years ago

An old woman once stopped me in the street on a cold day in Brooklyn. She was wearing no coat, so I gave her mine, and my husband gave her some money. I went about my business and later in the evening I stopped in the mosque to pray. When I got up I was stunned to see the same woman with two other obviously poor old women. She was wearing the coat. She hugged me, and invited me and these other women to eat some fish and rice she’d just bought at a restaurant down the road. We didn’t… Read more »

Dave
Dave
14 years ago

The Sheep and Goats parable is troubling. It is easily to justify not giving by making judgments like “they probably use it for drugs,” but I don’t think that is what God intended. The Bible doesn’t tell us to try to figure out the scammers, it just asks us to give what we can. There is an ultimate judge, and I try to trust that the scammers will get what they deserve, and those who are not scammer will find some measure of comfort.

Marisa
Marisa
14 years ago

Hi there, and welcome to San Francisco. I actually live and work in the neighborhood that you blogged about (North Beach/Chinatown), so I confront the people that you met on the streets every single day. I’m glad that you, a tourist, have pondered this so thoughtfully and at such length — so many others I meet who are visiting the city avoid the homelessness/poverty issue here entirely. Homelessness is a huge issue here in SF, not unrelated to the fact that it costs an arm and a leg to afford to live here (I live with family.) It’s politically, and… Read more »

Justin Thibault
Justin Thibault
14 years ago

The Church that I belong to has a benevolence ministry – I’m sure that more than my fair share is making to those in need. Also, as I’m involved in volunteering, people are brought along my way that I can help in tanglible ways – including money. As for the verse in Matthew 25, you notice it didn’t say “I was a random person asking for money and you didn’t gave me money as you busily passed by”. The true application of that verse involves you reaching out and touching the person, finding a real need in their life, and… Read more »

mapgirl
mapgirl
14 years ago

There’s a difference between panhandling and busking. Performing for money is worthwhile and public art and music are wonderful. Homeless panhandling is not. I’ve lived in 4 major urban areas, SF included. The one thing I will say is never give a panhandler in the Bay Area money. They don’t freeze to death in the winter like on the east coast. It’s a horrible, but very true fact. I am much more sympathetic to homeless people on the east coast because I don’t know how they make it through the winter here. Often times ‘street kids’ in the Haight are… Read more »

Craig
Craig
14 years ago

Great post. For me, giving to those in need is about compassion more than it is about money; when I give I make sure I not only give generously but also make eye contact, ask the person their name, and let them know that I’ll pray for them (which I do). These are fellow human beings, after all, and there’s no reason to treat them as anything less. As a Christian, I believe that giving is as also about realizing that the things we have are often well beyond what we need (especially if we’re in a position to be… Read more »

cribcage
cribcage
14 years ago

But how can I tell which beggars are truly needy, and which are just going to use the money for booze or pot? Does it matter? And who am I to judge? To quote a TV show: Dan:  Who do you give your money to now? Isaac: I give it here and there. There are plenty of good causes. Dan:  That’s the problem. Isaac:  Danny, every morning I leave an acre and a half of the most beautiful property in New Canaan. I get on a train and come to work in a 54-story glass highrise. In between, I step across bodies to… Read more »

J.D.
J.D.
14 years ago

cribcage — I know exactly which TV show you’re quoting, and I know exactly which episode. It’s one of our favorite shows (we even own the DVDs). Right on.

And great comments, everyone. I don’t have time to respond (still on vacation), but I’m checking in every now and then…

iamanassholeiknow
iamanassholeiknow
14 years ago

all of you are weak pieces of crap!!
giving them money only makes it worse

if nobody paid them, they would quit asking and the problem would be solved. and dont give me crap about them needing it to eat, they can get a fucking job.

when you walk by the scum, just ignore them or be like “yeah, right”.

Stephen
Stephen
14 years ago

The way that I’ve ended up reconciling people begging is whether or not it is socially acceptable. I grew up in New Zealand (I was born mid 70’s for a time reference) and in a city of 350,000 I remember that there was *the* beggar. Now I admit there probably were more, but there was one guy who was *known*. I just never saw homeless or beggars. Why were there no homeless people there? As I grew up I thought probably it was because the standard of living was better in New Zealand but I’ve traveled a lot and lived… Read more »

dustin
dustin
14 years ago

I visited SF last year. I’m from the midwest, where we have poor people, but not any beggars that I’ve noticed. When I saw the man playing his keyboard outside the bart and the five other beggars outside on the stairs I was very , very nervous. I got hit up for a lot of money. I gave a few pieces of change here and there, until I saw a man peddling flowers that I saw in a trash can I had just passed, and those selling free newspapers. They obviously have an eye for visitors. I should have had… Read more »

Mikael
Mikael
14 years ago

I’ve never been to USA, but if I have understood correctly there are very few massive social welfare programs in your country. In Scandinavia begging is not a big problem nor a security issue. We tend to attribute that to social welfare programs, which are governmental and quite large in size. I used to be critical of those programs until I went to South America where begging and street crime is a huge problem and a security issue. Seeing societies which do not have equal opportunities for all in terms of education and basic social security was an eye-opener for… Read more »

Devra
Devra
14 years ago

I work in Human Services, at an agency serving the homeless & at-risk in Sacramento (just a couple of hours East of SF), of which we also have many. SF is notorious for the aggressiveness of its panhandlers, so it’s probably a bit daunting for a visitor. Anyway, on this topic: I no longer give money to panhandlers. I make no judgements about what I *think* the money is used for, I honestly don’t feel it’s any of my business. But I work in the field, and I know there are community resources available: food banks, hot meals, shared housing,… Read more »

Dee Currey
Dee Currey
13 years ago

Hi Ive just back back from SF, (was on honeymoon) i at first found the beggars disturbing and felt frightened, but after a while i felt sorry for them, as to why they have to beg? is there no social security there i am from london?
Dee

MrsWPilgrim
MrsWPilgrim
13 years ago

How interesting, JD; you’ve attracted the two extremes with your post. On the one hand, you have someone who apparently not only has no consideration for the suffering of others, but no consideration for the sensitivity of others to vile language. On the other hand, you drew someone who believes that charity at gunpoint is the solution–and that government can be trusted to be more caring than the people who operate and/or fund it. Myself, I offer no solution. Those who fall on hard times simply do, and of course we as Christians ought to help them. For those who… Read more »

Katie
Katie
13 years ago

It is interesting how different countries handle the situation of beggars. When I was living in Peru for two years, I noticed that some beggars actually had proof from the government in regards to their situation, clearly stating that as far as they can tell, the only way this person can survive is by beggin and that they encourage you to donate. Others that make a healthy amount or are able-bodied and have family on which to rely do not have these documents. Of course, Peru doesn’t really have any kind of social welfare programs, especially not in the rural… Read more »

Enide
Enide
13 years ago

What’s going on with the “Asian” man distinction? If it were a white male, would you have named him as such? Yes, you’re good hearted and all for giving a homeless person money, but keeping racial and socioeconomic (“beggar”? Are we in the 18thc.?) lines in your head does society a larger disservice.

Tessie
Tessie
13 years ago

I’ve been living in Seattle for the past few years, and they have an interesting system here. There is a weekly (I think) newspaper called Real Change (nice little pun there) that is sold to the homeless for $.30 and issue. They sell it on the streets for $1 an issue. I think its a great way of giving these people a proactive way to deal with their situation and to EARN some money instead of begging for it. Coming from SF area where there are even more homeless than there are in Seattle, I’m amazed that more cities don’t… Read more »

Sam
Sam
12 years ago

I agree with Enide. I noticed that the only two times you mentioned the race of a person were in describing the Asian man and the black man. Everyone else’s race didn’t receive mention. This is troubling for two reasons. It reinforces the idea that whiteness is neutral (when in fact, there is no neutrality when it comes to race). It also reinforces exaggerated and misleading stereotypes about Asian and black Americans. If you’re not going to mention the race of every person you talk about (and if you did, I would seriously wonder what the motivation was), I would… Read more »

RAYMOND
RAYMOND
12 years ago

RAYMOND SAYS: I MET A LADY WHO WAS PEDDLING FRUIT. HER TRUCK WAS DISABLED AND SHE NEEDED MONEY FOR REPAIR. I PURCHASED 100 BOTTLES OF WATER AND SET HER UP ( AS A BEGGAR ) ON AN INTERSECTION OF ROADWAY OFTEN FREQUENTED BY PANHANDLERS. SHE WAS THREATENED BY TWO OTHER BEGGARS WHO FELT THEIR TURF WAS BEING INVADED. SHE REMAINED, AT THE LOCATION, FOR TWO HOURS AND COLLECTED $30 . AFTER ANALYING THE EXPERIMENT, MY CONCLUSION WAS—THE HOMELESS MAY RECEIVE ALL THEIR NECCESITIES AT NEARBY SHELTERS. THE MAIN REASON FOR BEGGING IS TO PURCHASE WHAT THE SHELTERS DO NOT OFFER—BOOZE… Read more »

Alex Carter
Alex Carter
11 years ago

I have to panhandle for a living right now. I am polite to EVERYONE. I never turn down food, generally eating it on the spot. I’d love to get McD’s coupons, gift cards for Safeway, et., but no one’s given me those, except for a fellow bum who gave me one for $35(!) for Jack In The Box; I ate on that for a week. I try to be the panhandler I’d like to be panhandled by. Polite, friendly, and never condemning even when some of you tell me to go to hell – the present financial collapse will have… Read more »

birotica si papetarie
birotica si papetarie
9 years ago

apropo merci de post a fost foarte interesant ,sper sa mai intru si alta data si sa gasesc informatii asemanatoare

May Grandmoo
May Grandmoo
8 years ago

I visited SF two years ago and I got very astonished to see so much beggers out in the streets. I had just left NYC where there was no beggers what so ever. So I tried to find out why the begger problem in SF had grown to this extent. I found out from one of the city guides that the begger problem occered and escalated when the city offered some very generous welfare services for the homeless. And, even if it sounds cynical, but the more generous welfare system there is, the more people tend,from here and there to… Read more »

snapbacks hats
snapbacks hats
7 years ago

I think that a home foreclosure can have a significant effect on the debtor’s life. Mortgage foreclosures can have a 6 to a decade negative effect on a borrower’s credit report. Any borrower having applied for home financing or any loans for example, knows that your worse credit rating is actually, the more challenging it is to get a decent mortgage. In addition, it could affect the borrower’s capability to find a really good place to let or rent, if that turns into the alternative homes solution. Interesting blog post.

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