Guest Insights | Hand Out or Helping Hand

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We have all seen them, people on the side of the road with their homemade cardboard signs asking for help.  With phrases like “Veteran down on his luck” or “Anything helps,” they position themselves at intersections with the hopes that passersby will give them a few bucks.    It is safe to say that many of us have, at one time or another, given money to help out someone in need.  But are our impromptu donations really helping out?

In May 2018, the City of Colorado Springs launched its “Handouts don’t help” campaign.   Signs were placed on medians throughout the city, encouraging people to text donations to help local agencies that support the homeless community rather than giving money directly to people on the streets.    Donations received are facilitated by the Pikes Peak United Way and distributed annually to various agencies that play a part in the day-to-day lives of the homeless community.

The campaign has sparked a mild controversy as to whether giving money directly to the panhandlers really helps.  It is my opinion that it really doesn’t.   While this is only my opinion, I will support it by saying that I have been involved with the Marian House for almost five years.  And if I have learned one thing during this time, it is that there are countless resources available to those in need.  A few examples are the Marian House (of course), where people can receive a free meal once a day, with no questions asked.   Clients are welcome to go through the line as many times as they like.  In addition, on most days, there are packaged food items placed at the back of the dining room, free for the taking.  Items such as bread, pastries, and yogurt are frequently given away.  In addition to food, the Marian House offers its client service support.     Client services offer many resources which are free for the asking; one such service is the on-site SET clinic, which offers assistance with navigating the medical system and offering a variety of on-site medical services.   Clients can receive basic medical help, mental health assessment, and flu shots, all free of charge.  Other resources available at client services include assistance with obtaining clothing, job placement, mail pick up, and pro-bono legal services.    Keep in mind this is just one agency, amongst several in the city, which are there to help.  Assistance is there for the asking.

While handing someone a few bucks at an intersection might seem like it is helping, the question is, “Does it really?”  While I, for obvious reasons, cannot speak to where the money goes, the assumption is that oftentimes it goes to drugs and alcohol.  Truthfully, I cannot say with any degree of certainty that this is the case, and perhaps it is not fair to make that assumption.  But I can say with confidence that when you give to local agencies, such as Catholic Charities, the money is used to help maintain the various resources that are offered.  Handing the guy on the corner a couple of bucks is a temporary solution to what is really a permanent issue.  We cannot turn a blind eye to those in need:  most of us want to help and make some sort of difference.   The real difference, however, is made by giving to reputable agencies that help large numbers of people rather than giving a handout on the streets.

Before volunteering at Marian House, I was oblivious to the homeless world.  I would see them on the street and turn away as if that would make the issue itself go away.  I never gave it much thought because, honestly, like most people, I believed it wasn’t my problem.    And maybe in the scope of our daily lives, it still isn’t.   But you bring in the human factor, and most of us want to help.  I will admit that even though I deal with the homeless more frequently than most, I still find it uncomfortable to see them on the streets asking for money.

Another way to help is to carry care packages in your car.  For a few bucks, you can put together some much-needed items, and rather than handing out cash, hand out a bag with socks, hygiene products, and small snacks.  Perhaps include a piece of paper with the address of the Marian House to show them an available resource because, let’s be real here, if you don’t know about a resource, you cannot utilize it to make a difference.  And what Catholic Charities and the Marian House do really does make a difference.

The reality is giving a homeless person a couple of bucks won’t alleviate the issue. Why give them a couple of bucks when you can give so much more?  The next time you reach for that money, please consider a donation to a local agency instead.  After all, and handout is not a helping hand.

Bobbi Almeida is a Security Guard for Catholic Charities at the Marian House

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