As the CEO of a homeless transitional center, the question "Should I give to the homeless on the street?" is one of the most common. Consistently, I give the same answer -- no.
My answer may seem cold-hearted, unsympathetic and cruel, especially when I work to support the homeless every day. Certainly, my answer does not imply that the homeless are not in need or that donations do not help, however, the vast majority of handouts serve the wrong purpose. A handout perpetuates problems of drug abuse, alcoholism and untreated medical conditions. We would never treat a family member who needs care by just slipping them a dollar and continue walking, hoping that they become better. In order to become better, you would care for that person, making sure they visit doctors and are on the right plan to success.
I am a firm believer that if we "teach an individual to fish" we give them the necessary tools to succeed, but if we "give an individual a fish" we encourage them to come back for another. Most homeless need support to get back on their feet and living on the street asking for a handout is no first step. Transitional centers like the Weingart Center in Los Angeles' Skid Row are designed to address issues that homeless men and women are dealing with in order to reposition themselves to become positive contributing members of our community.
Whether they have a mental condition, HIV or any other condition, the homeless need a support system that can build people up. The street does not offer that.
I am confident that the homeless who are transitioning at the Weingart Center would agree with me. They can tell you firsthand that the money handed to them typically leads to the purchase of drugs or alcohol which ultimately leads to a cycle that never ends.
So next time you are tempted to give a homeless person a dollar, please remember that you may be buying them a snack for the night, but consequently you are continuing to perpetuate the problem that might have lead them into homelessness. When you are confronted with that situation, look the person in their eyes, smile and say respectfully, "I'm sorry, I can't. Good luck." Instead, consider the hundreds of transitional centers and community organizations that work to improve the lives of the homeless by giving them the necessary treatment and support to get back on their feet.