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Homelessness: Does a Dollar Make a Difference?

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Every day many of us see a homeless person holding a sign or a cup begging for money. The kind-hearted people among us often give spare change or a dollar to this homeless person. However, we may ask ourselves, "Will a dollar make a difference in the life we've just touched?"

Yes, a financial gift of any amount does make a difference -- a number of differences, in fact. With our contribution, the homeless person will be able to accumulate enough money to purchase the basic necessities of life -- food, clothing and shelter. Further, by reaching out to the homeless person, we show that we care, which uplifts his/her spirits. And our generosity expands our own feelings of compassion which science has shown positively affects our immune system.

I'm reminded of one very cool January night in downtown Los Angeles, CA, when a young homeless mother stood outside a theater with a shopping cart holding her two children, a toddler and an infant. She asked me if I could spare some change.

I reached in my pocket and handed her two dollars.

"Thank you. God bless you," she said.

Then she reached into her own pocket, drew out a stack of bills and placed my two dollars on top.

I walked away, but thought I would like to talk further with this young woman. So, I went back and inquired if I could ask a personal question.

"Sure," she responded.

"I was wondering about your situation. You seem to have plenty of money. Why are you and your children out in the cold at 9:30 at night?"

"Oh, you don't understand," she replied. She went into her pocket and showed me the crumpled stacks of single bills. "With your two dollars, I now have 28 dollars. We'll be out here until we have 36 dollars for a motel room."

I had no more money to share with this young mother, so I wished her well and left with a great sadness in my heart. While I contributed to her "motel fund," she taught me a very valuable lesson that giving money to a homeless person can absolutely help.

Because homeless shelters are generally full and their waiting lists are often closed, many homeless people, like this young mother, have to fend for themselves.

Of course, it would be great to have shelter for everyone who needs a bed for the evening, but we are far away from that goal.

We need to ask ourselves, "What are homeless people to do until we have a shelter bed for each one of them?"

Just do the math. In San Diego, CA, for example, the Regional Task Force on the Homeless (RTFH) has published the results of the 2012 Homeless Count and determined that in that county there are about 9,800 homeless people. Of this number, only 4,500 of them are sheltered. That means that 5,300 homeless people are unsheltered in San Diego County and they must find their own place to sleep each night.

I know there are those people who say if we truly want to help a homeless person we should donate our money to a public or private social service agency.

Why not? I say. We can help by donating to a public or private social service agency, as well as giving money directly to a homeless person, as indicated in the story above.

But we may wonder how much we should give to a homeless person.

One day my friend, Susie called:

I have to ask you a question. I was just at the market and there was an elderly couple holding a sign that asked for money. I didn't know what to do. I thought about it a while and then I gave them a $10 bill. Did I do alright?

I'm smiling even today as I remember that conversation with Susie.

I asked Susie how she felt after she gave the $10 to the homeless couple.

"Great!" she exclaimed. "I never felt better."

"That's your answer, Susie. You did great!" I responded.

The monetary gift we give to another human being can help that person and
always helps the giver!

Recently, a famous producer's wife told me about the experience her son had with a homeless woman. She explained that one day, her son gave a homeless woman a $20 bill. The next day, her son was shocked to see the same homeless woman back in the same location begging for money.

"My son gave her $20, so why was she still there?" she asked, "But he did feel really good about helping her with that $20."

I wanted to say, "Did your son actually expect the homeless woman to become housed because he gave her $20?"

But what I said was, "Please thank your son for helping that woman. I'm glad that he felt good about helping someone in need."

While we will truly never know whether or not our financial gifts can help homeless people become housed, we can be sure of one thing -- giving to a homeless person always makes a difference for the better for us.