December 11, 1998
By Dwight Filley
What about the guy with the cardboard sign? Should you give him a dollar or feel guilty for not doing so?
First, let’s consider why he is out there. The sign usually announces he is hungry, and wants money to buy food. The street people who ask for spare change usually say they want to buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee. We don’t trust politicians or used car salesmen. Should we trust the guy on the corner?
Specifically, is there a way to test how hungry he is? First, consider that every big city in America has dozens of food banks, homeless shelters, church sponsored hot meals, and so on. If all this food is readily available, it is unlikely the guy can’t find a meal.
But still, maybe he really is hungry. To test this, Bob Cote, who runs the homeless shelter Step 13, has distributed thousands of coupons to street people throughout Denver. They are good for a free meal at his shelter. Only a tiny fraction of the coupons have been redeemed.
But if they are not hungry, what are they doing with the money? The unfortunate truth is that the vast majority of the hard core homeless are addicted, either to alcohol or drugs. They don’t turn in the coupons because the coupons aren’t good for booze or dope.
Two anecdotes may help illustrate. When this writer was managing low income apartments in Denver, he got a call from the Salvation Army. They had a young man with a pregnant wife who had just arrived in town with nothing but an empty tank of gas and the clothes on their backs.
The Salvation Army offered to cover his first few months rent if we would accept him as a tenant. The deal was done, and soon he had a job and was paying his own rent. The couple had the baby, moved out to a better apartment, and about a year later I got a call from the young man. He was now a carpenter and wanted to see if I had any repairs that needed to be done because he was in business for himself.
This sort of homeless person is not the problem, or at least not a long term problem, and we do not see them holding cardboard signs.
The second story concerns a former street person who had straightened out and had a regular job. During a seminar on homelessness hosted by the Independence Institute, he was asked what percentage of the street people he knew were alcoholics. He paused for a moment in surprise, and then said “Well, all of them.”
Formal studies have backed this up. His estimate of “all of them” is a close fit to the high prevalence of alcohol and drug abuse among street people.
So, should you give a dollar to the man with the cardboard sign? We know he is almost surely an addict–an abuser of alcohol or drugs. In extreme cases, such abuse can cause death. So giving a dollar will almost surely do harm, not good.
Furthermore, the presence of panhandlers contributes to urban decay. Not only to property values decline on streets with a homeless problem, but crime rates seem to be affected as well. New York City’s recent and rapid decline in its crime rate has been widely seen as due in part to what has been called “the broken window phenomenon.” If one window in a building is broken and left unfixed, soon all the windows in the building will be broken, because it is apparent that no one cares. Similarly, if graffiti is not painted out, urinating on the sidewalk is permitted, etc., soon crime rates increase because no one seems to care. Panhandlers contribute to this.
But we still feel badly seeing the man with the cardboard sign. The right thing to do is not to give a dollar to the man on the corner but to give a dollar–or many dollars–to the homeless outreach organization of your choice. These folks can help, sometimes.
But the dollar on the corner only makes things worse.
Dwight Filley is a Senior Fellow at the Independence Institute.
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