Should We Give Our Cash To The Homeless?

During the holidays, we often reflect on all that we have and become a little more mindful of those who have less. So when we see that young man begging at the intersection, should we give him our change? Or does our generosity just perpetuate problems for those who are homeless?

In this special Tiny Spark holiday podcast, we speak to three people who have devoted their careers to tackling homelessness and delve into the debate about whether you should give money to people begging on the street. Jeremy Swain, CEO of Thames Reach, a homeless charity in London, warns that “your kindness can kill.” He says our holiday-fueled generosity actually poses problems for his staff. “There’s no doubt that we’ve lost people through overdoses for whom most of their income has come via the public.”

But Mark Horvath sees it differently. “When I was on the streets homeless, and I was addicted to drugs, the people that gave me money saved my life,” he tell us. And Anthony Ruffin, who does outreach work on Skid Row in Los Angeles can see both sides of argument. “It’s hard to answer that question,” he says. But, as we strive to be more informed givers, he stresses the need for compassion. “We’re all just a couple of paychecks from being in the same boat.”

Additional Links:

Jeremy Swain in The New Statesman: Giving money to the homeless isn’t generous – it can condemn them to death

Mark Horvath’s opinion: Giving Money to Homeless People Is Okay

L.A. Times article: A true L.A. hero: For people dying on L.A. streets, he offers help, and he won’t take no for an answer

Horvath on Twitter

Swain on Twitter



  1. Clarence

    Longtime listener of this podcast. Here in NYC I used to volunteer at a shelter, staying overnight with the male guests. To a man they were dealing with emotional issues and/or substance abuse. None asked for money inside although I know some did so on the street. Given the private and State support system in place I changed my mind about giving to people on the street. I used to give, but now I feel that, here at least, the best hope is for local homeless people is to avail themselves of the governmental and local groups that offer food, shelter, access to the process for permanent housing, etc.

    I don’t mean this as a ‘tough love’ approach, but just as one in which I’ve seen that when homeless people don’t themselves reach out for assistance from organizations, their reaching out through begging never seems to achieve any lasting improvement in their housing or mental conditions.

    • Amy

      It’s great to hear from a long time listener, Clarence, and also to learn how your first-hand experience in a shelter caused you to change your mind about giving cash to people on the street. It’s also good to hear that you volunteered at a shelter; an action that all of our guests seemed to agree is perhaps one of the most effective ways to address the issue of homelessness. Thanks for listening and for sharing your experiences. Hope you’ll continue to do so!

  2. Jeremy Swain is absolutely wrong to say people need to not have a roof over their heads to be homeless.

    It’s surprising to hear a professional saying what he did.

    Homelessness is the absence of a home. You might have been best to define homelessness before discussing the topic.

    You seem to talking about rough sleepers.

    Definition from UK/Scottish charity Shelter: The definition of homelessness means not having a home. You don’t have to be living on the street to be homeless – even if you have a roof over your head you can still be without a home. This may be because you don’t have any rights to stay where you live or your home is unsuitable for you.

    I wholeheartedly agree with them. As do the Scottish Government and many more around the world.

    • Amy

      Thanks, Rob. You’ve given me some things to think about. To me, the definition of ‘homeless’ was fairly clear cut but you raise an important point that “even if you have a roof over your head you can still be without a home”. Indeed, here in the US, we have many many homeless people who are not out on the street. They are couch surfing, sleeping in cars, and myriad other places. And all of them are indeed ‘homeless’. Thanks for sharing your insights with me. I am constantly learning about complicated issues and sectors. Hope you’ll continue to listen and to send us your feedback. Our programs will be richer for it.

  3. Dennis Kurnes

    Not everyone who is homeless is a drug addict!! People who think the way you people think are the problem not the solution. And of course charities do not want you to give money to homeless people because then they miss out on there 50% chunk of the pie.

    • Amy

      I don’t believe our story painted all homeless people as drug addicts, Dennis. Indeed, Anthony Ruffin and Mark Horvath both talk about all the ways homeless people have used the cash they’ve received from the public for important things they need. And certainly escalating housing prices in major cities is also causing more people to become homeless.

      It’s a complicated topic, which people have strong feelings about. We tried to delve into that complexity in our story rather than attempting to simplify it.

  4. Velincia Lee Ellis

    I appreciate this post. I do both so far as giving to the homeless. What ever an individual does with the money I give them is up to them. God said give, so I give. I cannot decide whether you are going to buy drugs or another necessity.

    • Amy

      Thanks for listening, Velincia. How, when and where to give is indeed a personal choice. However, on this program we’ve enjoyed exploring what kind of giving is most effective when trying to help others. Hope the perspectives on the podcast gave you some food for thought!

  5. Patrick J. Rumsey

    From London, Ontario. CANADA

    It has always been my assertion that you can not tell people…(any person – Homeless to CEO)…how to spend their money.

    If you give it to them…it is theirs to spend, anyway they want/need/require.

    Patrick J. Rumsey

    • Amy

      Interesting perspective, Patrick. There is a commonly held notion that all giving is good. We’ve tried to push back against that idea a bit on our program, recognizing that we can sometimes cause harm with our well-intentioned efforts. It was useful to hear Jeremy Swain’s argument that our cash handouts at the holiday season can be used to help fuel drug habits…but certainly many people agree with you that people are free to choose how and where they give. Thanks so much for listening and hope you’ll continue to do so!

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