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Giving to panhandlers: A priest, a rabbi and an advocate discuss this dilemma

Ultimately, giving money to people on the street is an individual decision. We talked to a priest, a rabbi, and a homelessness expert to help you decide.

KUOW listener Alyssa always passes by the same man asking for money near Interstate 5 at Northeast 130th Street — he’s young and always has a book. She has seen him for years. In fact, that spot is so popular, panhandlers show up in Google Maps street view.

Other times, families with children approach her in shopping center parking lots and ask for money. Alyssa asked KUOW her quandary:

"What is the best thing to do in the moment? Giving money doesn't feel right, but neither does just driving by. Even giving to organizations that help the homeless doesn't do anything for the individual standing in the rain on the other side of my car door right now. What can I do to help them, especially if children are involved?”

KUOW's SoundQs team reporter, Anna Boiko-Weyrauch, asked a priest, a rabbi, and a homelessness advocate to chew on this one.

  • Father Brad Hagelin is pastor of St. Luke Parish in Shoreline and vicar for Catholic Charities.
  • Rabbi Will Berkovitz is the CEO of Jewish Family Service of Seattle.
  • Rex Hohlbein is the founder of Facing Homelessness.

Father Hagelin: Every single person that you come into contact with has a great dignity. It's really important to treat them not as a nuisance, not as an eyesore, but as a child of God; as someone who has immense dignity.

And so if it's a homeless person that you are able to have more than one encounter with, someone that you maybe you see every day. I would say the most important thing is to know their name. Begin a conversation with them, maybe even get to know their story a little bit.

Anna Boiko-Weyrauch: Once you go beyond that, how do you know what will actually truly help them?

Father Hagelin: Well hopefully have the opportunity for them to tell you. If you're able to put them in touch with resources that might be able to get them off the street, or in a good direction. Those resources are out there, and so educating yourself to know them.

Boiko-Weyrauch: Rabbi, when you hear this how do you respond to it? Does this resonate for you? How do you answer this question?

Rabbi Berkovitz: It resonates a lot. You have to see the humanity in the person. It is easier and easier to just walk past and come up with the justifications for why we're not going to help. They're going to use the money to buy alcohol, whatever that is. Those are all our own self justifications to stop doing the thing that we’re called to do what we’re meant to do. We can't walk by. We can't not act.

Boiko-Weyrauch: People feel uncomfortable because sometimes there's drug and alcohol use involved and, well, I don't want my money to go to fuel somebody else's addiction. How do we grapple with that, Rex?

Hohlbein: I would like to start by saying a gift is a gift. So, we get caught up in the responsibility of the use of that gift.

We don't do that anywhere else in our life. We don't give a present to our mom and say, “Hey, here it is. I love you, but I only want you to use it on Tuesdays and if I'm there.”

When that exchange is made, it’s no longer ours. It doesn't mean that I think everyone should give money. I think when your heart asks you to give, you should give right.

I think we get good at what we do a lot of. So if we get good at shutting down our compassionate voice, we perfect that and we can bring it to other parts of our life.

I'll add just quickly, this is not a homelessness crisis. This is a community crisis and that's a profound difference. Because when we talk about a homelessness crisis we talk about “those people over there.” But when we say “community crisis” we include ourselves.

Father Hagelin: I would just completely agree with both Rex and Rabbi Will. I think it's always a “both and.” It's both the charity, loving the person in front of you. (From a Catholic perspective because Jesus told us to and we see Jesus in them.)

But that doesn't exclude us from justice question, which is the larger systemic or systematic questions that lead to it. All those things are important, so it’s always “both and.”

Hohlbein: At a freeway off ramp you may only have four seconds. You're not going to figure out that person's needs, but in that four seconds you can lower your window and say, “I just got to tell you from three cars back I could see you have a beautiful smile.”

If there was one thing I would say that every single person should engage in, it is to show love and connection.

Boiko-Weyrauch: What if I'm just not personally comfortable with engaging with the person outside the window or taking that step?

Rabbi Berkovitz: Life is not comfortable, right?

But, if especially if you have kids in the car. You know, we always keep a box of granola bars because if you don't want to give money, you don't have to give money. But there's something in the act of the acknowledgment and just offering. How you respond when you see that person is absolutely critical.

My kid … I remember this really vividly. When he was really little, we were driving home one day and I said, “Oh, I have to stop by the store there and pick something up.”

And he goes, “Don't forget to see what Margaret needs.” In my mind I'm like, “Who’s Margaret?” I couldn't think of who Margaret was.

And I finally said, “Who's Margaret?” And he says, “Oh, it's the woman who's selling those newspapers there.”

I'm like, “How do you know her name?” And he looked at me. He goes, “I asked.”

We also got advice from someone asking for money on the street

Michael Thompson stands by the northbound I-5 exit to Northeast 65th Street and waves at each passing car. His handmade cardboard sign says, “Need help. Will work. God Bless.”

Thompson is actually not homeless, he said, but lives in housing for formerly homeless veterans like himself. People in passing cars give him around $10-$40 a day he says, which helps him with rent and bills. But for him, it’s about more about socializing, Thompson said.

“I come out here and meet friends, I get work from them,” he said. “When I’m gone, they ask where I’ve been.”

Thompson receives about $1,000 a month in veterans benefits and picks up gigs in construction, carpentry, and landscaping. He also cuts hair, and in front of him is a camo-print backpack filled with barber tools.

Thompson answers the listener’s question: if the person asking for money is homeless, give them food or warm clothing like gloves. If they’re not homeless, give them work.

“I never turn work down,” Thompson said.

Here is a roundup of a few resources that help homeless families

King County routes people with emergency housing needs through a centralized system, called Coordinated Entry for All, which can be accessed by dialing 211 or walking into a specially designated resource center.

The organization, Crisis Connections, also maintains a comprehensive online directory of housing and other resources for people in need across Washington state, as well as a 24-hour crisis line at 866-427-4747.

Mary’s Place has family drop-in centers, night shelters, and specialists that work with families to find the right housing and services. Families looking for shelter tonight can call (206) 245-1026.

People who want to help can share the number with families seeking shelter, Mary’s Place spokesperson Linda Mitchell said

“We know what beds are available across the county,” Mitchell said. “We can route families accordingly.”

The organization also has a new online form you can fill out when you see families experiencing homelessness. The organization’s outreach workers may follow up with the family, have a conversation, and connect them with services.

“Sometimes it’s an easy solution,” Mitchell said, like providing first and last month’s rent.

“If there is a family with children and they’re homeless, we want to know,” Mitchell said.

YWCA is another organization that works in Seattle, and King and Snohomish counties. The group has services for emergency shelter, and transitional and affordable housing for low-income women and families.

Information on their programs is available through their website or 211.

Social service organization Hopelink has short-term shelters in Kenmore and Redmond for families with children under 18. Anyone seeking housing through the organization has be screened through the Coordinated Entry for All system by dialing 211 or visiting a resource center.

For people experiencing domestic violence, emergency housing may be available through YWCA and organizations LifeWire (call their 24-hour hotline 425-746-1940 or 800-827-8840) and Dawn ( 425-656-7867 or toll-free at 877-465-7234).

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