THE BLOG
06/11/2014 02:58 pm ET Updated Aug 11, 2014

Should I Give Money to the Homeless?

As a mental health professional working with homeless veterans, when I talk with people about what I do, this question often comes up. In fact, when people ask me this question, despite their intention, they often come off as indirectly asking me for permission or to rationalize what they've already been doing.

Sadly, this question is rarely asked with the respect and conversational space needed to explore such a complex and nuanced question. For starters, this question's framing is highly misleading. "Should," "ought to," "must," "need to," are used with the intention of motivating ourselves. Unfortunately, it often does so with a consequence of an emotional experience of guilt and inadequacy when we fall short of our assumptive ideals. This question also links "getting involved" with "giving money," when there are many ways to help the homeless. Clearly, the more questions we ask, the more complicating the subject becomes.

To better address the question, we need to elucidate the inherent complexities within. Some thoughts about homelessness may include:

Homeless people are everywhere and are often asking for money. When I see them, I don't know what to do. I feel uncomfortable, helpless when I pass them, and I want to do something to help

And/or:

...when I see them I get mad. I'm indifferent to them, I don't want to see or smell them. It's disgusting. They should do something to change their situation. It's too much, there are too many of them. What else can I do?

I think all of these reactions have validity. I experience similar thoughts and feelings regularly, even as a professional in the field. In my experience, what breeds the discomfort, and ultimately determines my response, is the confrontation of these underlying thoughts and feelings, rather than the individual's initial question. Ultimately, my ability to confront and process my own feelings, perceptions, evaluations and pre-existing beliefs about homelessness is what determines my response to a person asking me for money.

Acknowledging these factors, we can briefly address how complicated helping people who are homeless can be:

1) Once you give to a person who is homeless, you have little control in how the money, food or items are used. You also may be encouraging the homeless epidemic.

There are certain realities we must accept. Individuals who are homeless will use money as they see fit, and in ways we may not agree with. In giving money specifically, there may be unintended consequences such as an increase in methods and boldness (concept of "rent exhaustion" often multiplying homeless populations in touristy areas or exaggerating perceived need in solicitations to donors), and in extreme examples even creating more suffering.

Fortunately, once you've decided to give to the homeless, you're only limited in your creativity about how to give. You can give clothing, pet food for a homeless individual's animal, buy them a coffee, take them out to lunch and get to know them, and many other ideas.

2) Similarly, once you give to an organization who works with people who are homeless, you have little control over how the money, food or items are used.

In Los Angeles, there are many organizations who need your help. In giving directly to organizations, there are many organizational realities we must accept such as needing specific assistance, time delays, low staff to client ratios, and administrative costs. Fortunately, these organizations are experts in their fields, have considerable community ties and significant awareness of the complexities involved.

3) The greatest gifts you can give are often non-monetary.

Overall, choosing to give or not to give comes down to our own beliefs as well as many momentary factors. Here are the ways I believe you can do the most good:

Despite lacking conclusive evidence, the housing-first model, with dedicated mental health support, seems to indicate significant success rates in exiting from homelessness. I suggest supporting organizations providing housing-first with concurrent mental health models, and putting accountability on our local governments to provide access and resources for this population.

If you wish to engage with someone who currently experiences homelessness, I believe the best gift you can provide is your respect, support and concern for their plight. As mentioned previously, alliance and rapport are some of the most reliable indicators of psychological outcome. Exploring an individual's goals and experiences, allowing them to resolve ambivalence toward action and change regarding their situation, and providing resources once ready for change are some of the best ways you can support someone's turn toward reintegration.