I’m driving in LA, which has the 2nd highest homeless population in the U.S., after New York.
I come to a stop. A homeless person comes up to my car window. My friend was sitting in the passenger seat.
Inner conflict. I don’t like to give money because I don’t think it’s the right solution. But I also don’t want to look like an asshole without compassion.
In that moment, I caved in and gave the man some money.
My friend turned to me and said that’s nice of you.
The pride I felt in receiving that compliment quickly turned into shame because I knew I was virtue signalling.
Shouldn’t I give out of the generosity of my heart?
Maybe you can relate.
Let’s explore the edges of discomfort to the question: should we give money to the homeless? How much?
Acknowledgements: homeless people are people. I imagine most homeless people do not want to be homeless. Homelessness is a real social problem and covers a wide spectrum of scenarios. Onward.
When I give and when I don’t give
I brace myself whenever I visit Downtown LA. It’s home to Skid Row and homelessness is not only visible there—it’s aggressively in your face.
I easily get asked for money or food 5 times every time I’m in Downtown LA. Double that if I’m taking the metro.
Due to the sheer amount of encounters, I’ve worked out a standard approach when I’m downtown: I don’t give.
My logic: “I can’t possibly help out everyone here. So I’m not going to give to anyone.”
There’s less cognitive dissonance in this scenario because I’m applying a rule consistently.
But let’s say I’m at a place where it’s rare to see a homeless person.
If they make a request of me, I’m much more inclined to give.
I remember doing this in places like Denver or Beverly Hills. A homeless person, who honestly looked out of place in the current surroundings, asked me for money. And I gave.
Maybe it’s because the uniqueness of the situation made it more real? I mean, heck, if you’re really the only person in town who’s on the streets, then maybe there’s a chance we can help if we all pitch in.
The cognitive dissonance was palpable. Why was I so much more willing to give in one scenario and not the other?
This reveals that I’m doing some sort of mental gymnastics for this social situation:
|Criteria||Higher likeliness to help||Lower likeliness to help|
|Severity of the problem|
What does the homeless person need?
|If the person is injured and needs medical help|
If the person is hungry / asks for food
|The person is rude or entitled.|
The person asks for money.
Is the person dangerous?
|The person seems harmless ||The person is threatening or appears very mentally unstable|
Social distancing during Covid
How many people can I help?
|There is just one person to help|
The scenario is unusual for a homeless person
|There are too many homeless people|
There are resources nearby (food banks, shelter)
There’s informational asymmetry when a homeless person asks you for money. There’s a power in someone who goes first, even if the thing they’re doing is asking for money.
You may not have the same interest in engaging with them, but now you have the burden of responding. On top of that, you may also deal with others seeing you say no to a homeless person, whatever that means to you.
It’s like when the cashier turns the Square register to face you for the tip portion of the transaction…and everybody behind you can see. How much would you like to tip, hmMMm?
Someone who says “no” to a homeless person might be compelled to justify themselves. Well, I donate to the Midnight Mission. I help out at the soup kitchen. And one I typically use—sorry, I don’t carry cash.
On the other hand, some people want to give homeless people money – and be seen doing it. Youtuber MrBeast grew his viral channel by giving money away to homeless people. He virtue signals like nobody’s business – and it works. And some people don’t like it.
In that video, Mr Beast said to his lucky winner, “Promise me you won’t use this to buy alcohol.”
And that brings me to the next conundrum.
“But what will they do with the money?”
This is a common question when it comes to giving. What will your recipient spend their money on?
If you give someone money, and they spend it on drugs and alcohol, then are you just perpetuating the problem?
That’s why I’m more likely to give a homeless person food than I am money.
Once, a homeless man asked me to buy him some food from the gas station. I said okay. He said will you get me some chips? I noticed he didn’t look in great health, and I have my own beliefs about dieting. I decided to just get him a protein bar and water instead. He looked dismayed. Where’s the chips?
How far am I trying to be the enforcer of “what’s good” for a stranger? Do I give them what I think is good for them, or are they in their right? If being homeless is a miserable experience, what if drugs are the only solace they have?
There’s also the cognitive dissonance of doing something even when you know it’s not the long term solution.
Is giving away a dollar or protein bar enough?
Then we find ourselves up at night, trying to fix the world with our friends. We see the astonishing homeless rates in the Annual Homeless Assessment Report. Why does this problem persist?
This shouldn’t be any one concerned citizen’s responsibility, but it can often feels like it is.
Homelessness is a systemic problem, experienced at the individual level
The inner dialogue I surfaced here speaks to the dualism of any social problem:
The problem is systemic, yet we’re confronted with it at an individual level.
And systemic problems require systemic solutions.
The more charities and “opportunities to give” I see, the more I just see this as a reflections of a government that’s not accountable to its people. It’s gross inefficiency and the lack of social safety nets that need to be addressed – not how much individuals citizens should give.
Consider this: we already give to the homeless. In the form of taxes, taxes, and taxes.
In Los Angeles, we pay some of the highest taxes in the United States.
These taxes cover measures like Proposition HHH, a 1.2 billion dollar measure to build housing for the homeless.
The city estimated in 2016 that it would cost between $350,000 to $414,000 to build a unit of supportive housing (in other words, one apartment)….Now, more than three years after that estimate, the median cost per unit of housing in the Prop HHH pipeline is $531,373, according to the audit.
One project, a 41-unit building in Koreatown/Pico-Union, is estimated to cost more than $700,000 per unit.Source: LAist article
Seven. Hundred. Thousand. Dollars. For a supportive housing unit.
This is exactly why a company like SpaceX can succeed where government can’t.
Because the government’s job is not to be efficient.
Don’t blame the players. Blame the system.
For that reason, I believe we should remove moral judgment around the whole homeless issue:
Don’t judge someone for falling into homelessness.
And don’t judge someone who decides to give to the homeless, or someone else who doesn’t. Everyone has their own priorities, boundaries and gets to decide how much to give.
Finding a good heuristic when I’m asked to give
I agree with the Atlantic’s answer to giving to the homeless: “The short answer is no. The long answer is: Yes, but only if you work for an organization that can ensure the money is spent wisely.”
The logic is that the amount of money we give (unless you’re Mr. Beast) does more to relieve our own guilt than it does against the systemic issue of homelessness.
From this, my janky table and a few other ideas, I’ve stitched together a heuristic for myself.
- If approached by the homeless, I will acknowledge them and attempt to redirect them to nearby resources
- I will not give money to the homeless, but I will consider giving food, based on perceived need.
- I will not virtue signal my giving, nor make much about others’ virtue signaling
- If guilt, kindness or emotions elevate giving to the top of my values, then I will work for/with an effective organization to tackle the homeless problem.
End rant and some random ideas for the homeless problem
What if each street was assigned a needy person to help? Imagine a street lined with 7 homes on each side. That’s 14 houses. Each day of the week, one house cooks one meal for one homeless person. Or donates leftovers. Or donates the equivalent or what a nonprofit could provide as a meal. It shouldn’t be more than $5 per week, per household on the block. And just for good measure, this will be tax deductible.
This is doable; it just takes some creative collaboration.
There should be also be a dedicated help line for social services to help with issues like homeless services. Imagine a 711 number that doesn’t have to route through to the police.