Penny for your thoughts

What to consider before giving change to the homeless in Vancouver

By Kelly Thoreson


“Panhandling isn’t a very lucrative career,” Thomas explained as we sipped warm coffees outside the entrance to Insite, the Downtown Eastside’s supervised injection site. “Well, for me it wasn’t very lucrative — probably because I was never very good at it.”

It is difficult to walk through Vancouver without encountering someone in need of some spare change. Whether they are sitting at a corner with a grimy cardboard sign, or whether they approach you with an empty coffee cup, people in need of a few spare coins seem to be a bit of a fixture in Vancouver.

There is a lot to consider when giving out spare change, and people are often confused, indecisive, or impulsive regarding the matter. First, you have to determine whether you actually have spare change and how much you could potentially hand over. Do you set a standard amount for every person? Or is it on a case-by-case basis? Next you ask yourself whether they actually need the money, and you judge what you believe they are going to do with the money. If you do give money to this person, can you refuse to give change to anyone else throughout the day? With all of this to consider, it would be easy to give up and simply decide to never give change away.


Thomas once worked as an executive in Vancouver; however, after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) — which Thomas described to me as “holes in the brain” — he wasn’t able to continue work in his executive position. He tried a number of career paths, such as a mechanic, in order to make ends meet. Now Thomas spends his days wheeling around the Downtown Eastside, and he spends his nights sleeping at the Union Gospel Mission’s housing program.

Before he became homeless himself, Thomas encountered panhandlers in Vancouver on a regular basis. “When I was working as an executive, I didn’t like giving out change,” he admitted. Laughing, he said, “I love socialism, but I don’t like giving my change away.” He explained that he thinks panhandlers should understand that nobody is obligated to give them change, and they should be thankful for whatever they do receive. “I think that most panhandlers around here understand that,” Thomas said. “Some of the younger ones, though, they might not understand that is how it works yet.”

“I love socialism, but I don’t like giving my change away.” – Thomas, DTES resident

There are a number of stereotypes about the homeless that discourage people from handing out change. A common misconception is that panhandlers are asking for change because they are lazy, and people don’t want to part with their hard-earned cash in order to fuel someone else’s laziness. This is a stereotype that most people who work within homeless communities would be eager to argue against. Brittni Arthur, a student at Columbia Bible College who has volunteered in the Downtown Eastside and worked in the Tenderloin in San Francisco, admits that she believed this stereotype before working with the homeless herself. “I thought that they got themselves there and so they should get some self-motivation and get themselves out,” she said. “But it’s really not that simple.” For instance, many of the people who live in the Downtown Eastside are like Thomas and face a mental or chronic illness that makes it difficult or impossible for them to work or live on their own. Rachelle Schellenberg — who works in the Downtown Eastside with women with backgrounds of sexual exploitation and mental illness — also points to the fact that many of the homeless come from abusive backgrounds. In fact, the City of Vancouver’s 2011 Housing and Homelessness Strategy reported that 50 to 70 per cent of Vancouver’s homeless have suffered some sort of trauma and that nearly 50 per cent have been in government care such as a foster home during their lifetime. Schellenberg explains that this kind of a background can lead to addictions. “There is a root to that problem [of substance abuse and addictions]. They are addicted because they are self-medicating.” Thomas also admitted that he fell into a period of addiction a number of years ago, but he has since been clean.

The prevalence of addiction in the homeless community is a major rationale for people who don’t give money to panhandlers: they don’t want to fuel an addiction. “I would never hand out money because, even though intentions might be the best, a lot of the time once people get that money in their hands, it becomes too big of a temptation to go back to their habit,” Arthur said, explaining that she would prefer to buy a meal or bus tickets for someone in need. Schellenberg, on the other hand, said that she would rather give people the opportunity to make decisions on their own. “I shouldn’t have that assumption of what their purchases might be,” she said.

This stigma surrounding addiction also stems from the general population being unaware of how difficult it can be to get clean. Many substances create a bodily chemical dependence, which results in long and painful withdrawal periods. People need moral and emotional support to quit and remain clean, and such support is even more important during these withdrawal periods. Going ‘cold turkey’ can also be medically dangerous and often necessitates the support of a detox or rehab program. Enrolling in such programs, however, is easier said than done. These programs often have certain criteria that candidates must meet, and their waitlists mean that enrolment could be months away. There is no guarantee that candidates will still be in good behaviour or have the strength, motivation, and support to enter the program that far down the road. Furthermore, Arthur points out that the programs are often short-lived at six to eight months, and the support afterwards could be more effective. “After [your program], then what? You don’t have a place, you don’t have anything. So where do you end up? Back on the streets. Back in the same place.”

Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is dense with organizations and programs to help homeless people face addiction, sustain a healthy lifestyle, and help get them off the streets. This generous supply of resources is why many homeless people, including Thomas, choose to live there. However, if there are so many programs, why are there still people in the street, and why are there still people asking for money? “The services are great,” Thomas told me, “but they’re not enough.”

The low resources of the services in the Downtown Eastside was made evident as a woman stormed out of Insite, approaching Thomas and I yelling, “He won’t give me any fucking chill because I’m not a user!” (The “chill”, Thomas explained, was the coffee they were serving inside.) “I hope that guy gets fired!” After several minutes of heated complaints, an Insite worker came outside to calm the woman down. He explained that they had been very busy that day, which is why they couldn’t give out coffee to non-users.

After the worker left, the woman began complaining about how hungry she was and how badly she was craving pizza.

“Maybe they’re serving pizza tonight,” Thomas consoled hopefully, referring to the free meal they were hoping to receive from the Union Gospel Mission.

“It’s Thursday — so it’s probably liver,” one of Thomas’ friends offered up quietly.

“My favourite!” Thomas cheered — just a little too enthusiastically to be believable.

“There is a pretty long line outside UGM already. We should probably go,” the woman urged. It would be important for the trio to receive a proper meal on such a cold night.

Aside from not having enough supplies to go around, services provided by organizations and charities in the Downtown Eastside also aren’t entirely adequate for getting people off of the streets. There are a lot of things that people might need that these services don’t provide. For example, if a person gets clean from their addiction and wants to find a job, where do they wash up, and where do they find nice clothes for interviews? It would take a combination of organizations to meet these needs, if they could be met at all. That said, there are organizations to help the homeless get jobs, such as Mission Possible. They are one of the few job creation organizations in the Downtown Eastside, but they require that candidates fulfil a number of criteria before they can receive help. Schellenberg points to the prevalence of these restrictions within programs and how much control they can wield over participants. Staying on the street can provide a lot more freedom. For instance, Schellenberg explained that instead of being forced to sleep in a bedbug-infested single room occupancy (SRO) in order to receive certain services, a person sleeping on the streets has the freedom to choose where they want to sleep if it is warm outside. However, then they won’t be receiving any support and likely have a lower chance of leaving the streets. “Maybe there is a need to change the approach that we take towards these programs,” Schellenberg suggested — for more flexibility might encourage more participation and cooperation.

Donating your time or money to one of these organizations is a viable alternative for people who want to help the homeless, but don’t want to give money or food directly to people on the streets. Arthur suggests that you should research the organization first, however, to ensure that you support their mission and methods before getting involved with it.

Regardless of whether you give money directly to people on the streets, buy meals for the hungry, or donate to or volunteer with an organization — or even if you do none of these things — both Schellenberg and Arthur agree on one thing that every person should do when walking past someone on the streets: acknowledge them. “One of the biggest things that I have heard from people on the street is that they’re lonely,” Arthur explained. “And so when I have time, I stop to talk to them. Also, if I don’t have time, I always make sure I smile, and I make eye contact — because you would be amazed how many people will not even look at homeless people.” Schellenberg emphasized the importance of this, explaining that she always tries to make the people she encounters feel like an individual and a valuable member of society. “I try not to increase the level of excommunication and marginalization in society,” she said.

Arthur also suggests — if you are going to stop to chat with a homeless person — don’t talk down to them. If they are sitting on the ground, you should sit on the ground right next to them. “But always ask first,” Arthur warned. “For some people, the street is kind of like their living room — and you wouldn’t want anyone to come into your house uninvited and kick their feet up on your table, would you?”

There is a tendency to ignore homeless people or treat them rudely when they ask for money, and it is crucial that we don’t fall into that habit of behaviour. The most important thing to remember is to treat homeless people like humans, regardless of whether they are asking for money or not. “Yeah, they might be on the streets and they might be homeless,” Arthur said, “but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re still a person. If it were the other way around, how would you want to be treated? If you don’t actually take the time to stop and hear their story, you won’t know how they ended up there.”