Responding to Beggars

by Rachel Pieh Jones on April 2, 2015

I’m not even going to pretend to offer rules on how to respond to beggars. I’m not even going to define ‘beggar.’ There are lots of varieties of people who ask for money or help and I don’t like calling them beggars. I prefer to call them Saada or Abdul but for simplicity, I’ll call them beggars. (The following was written after I read 9 Quick Tips for Responding to Beggars by Someone Who Knows Them by Craig Greenfield.)


There are a lot of beggars in Djibouti and with the new stoplights (that’s right, Djibouti recently got stoplights), street corner begging has increased. By street corner begging, I mean when you stop at a red light (that’s also right, in Djibouti most drivers stop at red lights) and kids swarm the car.

There are other places where people beg and there are beggars who come to our door. I want to talk about two kinds of interactions – the ones on the street corner and the ones at the front door.

I have to confess that I haven’t always responded well to street corner beggars. I used to ignore them. Stare straight ahead. Continue the conversation with the passenger. Pretend there isn’t a young girl holding a baby or a boy with a pouty look tapping his fingers against his lips for ‘thirsty.’

Then I read a story about Jesus where the first thing he did was look at the person seeking help. He looked at him. Step 1 and it cut me to the heart.

Okay, I can look at them. Ignoring someone is not honoring their personhood, it is not offering them the dignity of acknowledging that they, too, are made in the image of God. So I started looking.

And I saw the same kids on the same corners all the time. So I started engaging with them. In the first few seconds they could only repeat the ‘give me money’ request and couldn’t hear that I was asking them their name. But slowly, their faces would change. Their eyes would ignite, they would start to smile. They dropped their fingers from their lips and said, “My name is…”

“Where is your mom?” I would ask. “Is she working? Where is your dad? Why aren’t you in school?”

We would chat until the light changed and the conversation would resume the next time I stopped. The kids on my regular corners stopped asking for money. They waved, some saluted, some made running motions because we also saw each other on my early morning jogs, sometimes they joined me for a block or two.

I never give them money. I do sometimes suggest places they can go for help – the neighborhood mosque or the Catholic-sponsored charity for street kids.

The beggars who come to my house are regulars. We know each others names, I know a little bit of their home life stories. They are usually mothers with heaps of young children that I know are their own because we’ve lived here long enough to see women through several pregnancies. I also don’t give these women money but when they come by, about once a week, I raid my cupboards and fridge and hand-me-down clothes. If they have a medical prescription, I take it and fill it. If they are in labor, I drive them to the maternity hospital and pay the bill.

It isn’t easy. I lose my patience. Sometimes I’m grumbling inwardly as I stuff bags or I thrust the food at them and don’t interact in a warm way. I’m greedy and selfish and lazy. My mind fills with excuses and judgments. But I try to keep going back to Jesus, who looked at the needy. And I started looking, really looking and recognizing individuals. Sometimes that makes it harder because now I know them and I can’t fix their situation. I can’t stop drug abuse or spousal abuse, I can’t solve endemic problems, I can’t force parents to keep kids who seem so sharply intelligent in school. But…

I’m learning that the most important question to ask is not: How can I solve this problem? It is: How can I love this person well?

It starts with looking at them and from there, it is a long road of growth and challenges. Along the way, we each need to be led by our own situations, contexts, convictions, and the Spirit filling us.

How about you? How do you respond to beggars?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Cindy

    Helping the poor is not something we do “to them”…it is something we do “with them”… In order to be with them we must, as you said, acknowledge them as a person. A person with potential. Thanks for the post! Working on changing my attitude toward the poor.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      That’s a good way to put it – not ‘to’ but ‘with.’ Thanks for those words.

  • Denise in Kenya 2

    Thanks for the post! It is always a dilemma for me, serving in Kenya.

  • I was convicted when you said you looked at them. Jesus looked at people. Living in Honduras, giving to street beggars became increasingly dangerous as the whole country has become more violent and the government less able to provide basic services. More often, I focused on the mothers of the children in our ministry. I had a rule – those who volunteered to clean or help always had the opportunity to eat. The poorest received clothes, medicine when we could, or a ride to the hospital. In that way, the mothers knew that our ministry was not about evangelism, but about holistic care.

    Now that I am living stateside, I don’t look at beggars. I resent them. I know I need to change my attitude even if giving money is still not a wise option.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      My husband has been much better at this than me over the years – looking and engaging. I’m learning from him and of course from Jesus. Not easy.

  • L.E.

    We’ve lived in Asia for almost a decade and i still don’t have this one nailed! Just this week we read Jesus’s words about giving to those who ask and talked with our pre-teen children about what that means for us here. I was challenged again to be generous.

    When we first came, I saw a friend model the love of Jesus. Even when he didn’t give, he engaged them in conversation, asking them about their family, their village home — treating them as a friend, worthy of respect and love. I’ve tried to do that too. Sometimes just a smile and a friendly nod will bring a smile to their faces.

    Yet, that doesn’t answer the question of when to give. The hardest ones for me are the beggars on the street. Many in this city are controlled by the syndicates. We always offer food if we have it along (it’s sometimes accepted and sometimes refused). Like Craig, I’m much quicker to give money to older people, even if it may be misused. And I keep praying for the love of Jesus so that I can always see the soul behind the outstretched hand. Sometimes when I’m unsure whether to give or not, I simply give a little money with the words “In the name of Jesus”. I keep praying for His wisdom, but even more, I pray for His heart.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I also feel confused and conflicted a lot of the time. Yes – praying for HIS heart!

  • Marilyn Gardner

    Really struggle with this as well. I live by the area in Cambridge with the highest concentration of homeless and work right downtown where there is a huge concentration of homeless. Their signs scrawled in markers on small bits of paper sometimes pierce the heart and sometimes make me angry. And sometimes I cross to the other side. I wrote this about a year ago after I crossed to the other side: “I cross to the other side because I have no solutions. I cross to the other side because I am tired. I cross to the other side because there is no inn to take people to.Maybe it’s not about having solutions or an inn. Maybe it’s about just showing up and saying ‘hi’; acknowledging the humanity of another person who struggles.”
    I’ve tried to do the same as you — engage the person; not give money; buy coffee or a meal or slippers; see people as real, as walking the same streets as me but with far more trouble. But none of this is easy. Thank you for bringing up a hard topic.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      I don’t see many beggars in the US but I think that’s just because we’re there so briefly. Somehow I’ve convinced myself it would be different, but it isn’t really, is it?

      • Marilyn Gardner

        No – I think it is different. Far more pervasive in Pakistan and Egypt and most other developing countries I’ve been to. Here, folks in the suburbs may never see a beggar whereas we saw beggars even in small villages. I think cities all have sections where homeless folks tend to congregate, and many of them don’t ask for money at all. It’s the few who have their signs. The hardest are the homeless teens.

      • Hope you ladies don’t mind if I join in… We were part of a group for 18 months that spent time with homeless people in Boston, right around the Cambridge area you’re mentioning, Marilyn. We’d cook a dinner and eat it together outside with homeless people once a week. Listen, learn, pray for anyone who asked us to. Like you said, Rachel, most friends who were homeless said they just wished someone looked at them. That someone acknowledged them. They appreciated honesty (“I’m sorry, I don’t give out money”) and a human connection over avoidance. Here in the MidEast I see people who are probably genuinely displaced by conflict, very few options, and there aren’t resources to point them to. I used to pass one young boy daily and would often have a short friendly exchange, over time got a great smile as we passed by. I see young moms with babies on their hips regularly. How do you live with an open heart? How do you balance the weight and the everyday-ness of it? God help us to keep asking the right questions…

  • abee

    I to, looked away most of the time. I live in Washington state, in a good size city. I wanted to tell them where to get help, but was afraid. I’m in a 12 step program and as part of that work I was asked to do random acts of kindness. So I was thinking of how to help the beggars. I wanted to give them sandwiches, but a sandwich has a shelf life, and would they trust me to eat it? So I thought fruit, bananas and oranges. They have peels, are self contained and are sweet. The response has been incredible. I am so grateful to be able to do this and I can look at them.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      This is awesome. I actually go tingles in my arms as I read it. And your response – to be grateful to do it and look at them, really beautiful and thoughtful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Dave Taylor

    Okay, a little humor here. But first a confession: I have hijacked my wife Louise’s mini iPad. I justify this (virginal) act based on the super-pseudo Chritian principle that I GAVE her the pad two years ago as a gift and have not done anything wrong with it for all that time, so I’ve “earned” one sinful act, especially since she wouldn’t have the thing in the first place without my lavish expression of love in material form. Oh, and I refuse to use Facebook. She thinks I’m reading this post.

    I lived in Bremerton, Washington for a couple of years (2009-2011); the area is pretty economically depressed. It is also just Plain Depressd because of all the drizzling rain, but that isn’t the point right now. On my daily morning commute I would take the same freeway exit ramp and most often have to sit at a red light before making a left turn. Most days one or two homeless guys were sitting there on the shoulder, each with a torn cardboard sign. The messages were typical, “veterAn” “neEd $ for rent” “Sic baby” “plz heLP” “No family” etc. Of course the signs pulled at my heart but my brain said, Sorry, don’t believe it. Signal left, turn left.

    Then one day I got off the freeway and there was just one guy there. He was sitting cross legged, his elbows on his knees, holding a piece of cardboard. A blank piece of cardboard. Nothing written on it. Nothing – just an empty brown corrugated canvas. I looked at him. Everything was communicated in that moment. “Look, I couldn’t find a marker or pen or pencil stub so I’m just gonna hold this up. I know it is empty, I know it isn’t turned around backwards (and don’t motion to me to turn it around because I’m not an idiot.) I know that you know I know it is empty. I’m tired. Just fill in the blank with whatever message that would move you to give me money.” I rolled down the window a crack, shoved a couple dollars out and turned left.

    Dave Taylor, Rarotonga, Cook Islands

  • This is a post I’ve wanted to write but had no idea where to start…love that you pointed out the first step is looking at them as an individual. There were so many beggars in Cambodia and Thailand in tourist spots. I often turned them away. One time in Siem Reap, a woman who was extremely dirty and barefooted, holding a skinny toddler with an empty bottle, latched on to me and demanded I buy her milk. She said she “knew a store” and took me to a minimart. When we arrived, I asked the store clerk what would happen if I bought the woman milk. He said, she will return it and we will give her money. So I said I wouldn’t help her.

    Talk about conflicted! If I helped this woman, I aided and abetted her abuse of the child she held – keeping a child out in the sun all day without even water. I only know this because we went to Siem Reap frequently, sometimes once a month, and I always saw her begging from tourists.

    Yet our Cambodian friends who were Christians would often respond to beggars by giving food and talking with them. They had such compassion because many had been in similar situations or had family who were poor and suffering. Poverty was such a complex situation, and children were especially exploited in Cambodia.

    I can never give money away to a strange beggar, but I never felt right about just turning away. I do think I should be more open to God directing me to respond to each situation as needed. He can give us wisdom in perplexing situations that can guide us.

    I do think we should never feel completely easy about our response…we should always feel that tension, that discomfort, the pull of compassion and love even as we refuse to give money. If we ever stop responding emotionally to beggars, it means we have lost our compassion for the poor and for those driven to make a livelihood through such desparate and sometimes deceptive means.

  • Richelle Wright

    It’s been awhile… the kids at the street corners who let me practice Zarma and called me Madame Tim because they all knew my husband (he could never explain that…) as well as the ladies who came to my door wanting help. In both situations, I’d responded very much like you’ve described – seeing, interacting, learning… sometimes just learning to care.

    Then just this week, I was driving to see my grandmother – with a car full of kids and pulled up next to a man asking for money or for work at the end of a freeway exit. And I refused to look/see him. One of my littles piped up from the back seat, “Mama, why didn’t you say hi to that beggar like you used to in Niger?” And I didn’t really have an answer other than the fact that seeing poverty where I didn’t expect it was much harder than where I did – so I ignored and pretended he wasn’t there… chose not to look… chose not to see… and I was wrong.

    • Paula

      I’m curious, what is Zarma?

      • Richelle Wright

        A tribal language spoken along the Niger River in W. Africa.

  • Angie

    I use to volunteer with a meals program in Cambridge, MA. It was run by a few churches, one which I attended. I was looking for work as a new graduate and thought it was a good cause. I can’t tell you how great the people were that we served. I remember being terrified at first and then eventually coming to relax and enjoy serving people who we’re just like you or I (with bad fortune) looking for a meal. I think most just fell on hard times due to health issues, no insurance, and no family. There was only one drug addict that I remember coming through and the coordinator said that they never stay in one place. Sure enough, we only saw her once. I use to give change to some of the homeless that I’d see actually sleeping on the streets. My husband and I both loved living in Cambridge, but our hearts really ached as we passed by so many homeless in Boston and the surrounding area. Neither of us took issue with giving a little.

    My favorite experience of giving was when I was in Venice, Italy. I was terrified, as I was alone, and heard that gypsies could distract you and steal from you. A mother and daughter came by begging. I had part of a container of strawberries that I’d eaten and gave them the rest. They looked so happy. I will never forget their smiles. The girl played her accordion for me and they went on their way. I felt that they really needed that food. It made me happy to give to someone in need.

    I also had a bad experience where I ordered food for a man in Oak Park, IL and he was angry I didn’t order him a soda (because I don’t buy soda) and he thought that I was spending money on water. Little did he know, the water was free from the fountain. I didn’t like him being ungrateful, but clearly he didn’t know the water was free. I was thankful that I was fortunate enough not to have to cook every night, take a day off at a restaurant, and was raised by a family that could afford these luxuries (and actually know that you can get water for free at a restaurant).

    I also usually only give food (fresh fruit is also my choice because someone in need probably sees little of it if they have to go to a pantry), but I’ve never been sad to give some change too. I actually miss working at the meals program. I’d encourage everyone to give time, goods, or money to a program that serves those less fortunate. I think you will find it is good for the soul and that others really do need assistance.

  • Wow, thank you. This is constant here in Mexico… It was nothing like where I am from in California. You actually have to/get to face it, dive deep and look to Jesus. Things get uncomfortable but that’s good. Thank you

  • maelena

    I’ve been suffering from sleepless nights and too much
    pressure of thinking many ways how to overcome my current financial challenges.
    I believe that God is speaking to me through this aspect of life. I am
    devastated and heartbroken. I am in a point where I could no longer focus on
    my goals. Things didn’t go well in my
    finances and I went beyond my limit. My friendship with people closer to me is
    deteriorating. I already lost the trust of many of them. I regretted the area
    where I’ve done wrong with all my heart and only wish to turn back that
    precious time and correct those impulsive decisions I had made. Now alone,
    filled with guilt and great grief; I am losing hopes each time I see my creditor’s
    demands and threats. I have no peace. Getting a second job, is not enough to put
    the pieces together. I simply need to get back on my feet and start being a new
    person with fresher perspective towards life. I dreamt of a life where I am
    focusing on my work, save and also help. In times where there’s seemed to be no
    way out, I believe that there’s no harm in asking, if your intention is pure
    and honest. I also learned something. In life’s game, nothing is much
    devastating other than the pressure of financial struggle. If you are
    heartbroken because of love, relationship can wait. But if you owe someone,
    they can’t wait. They’re always more than ready to strike you.

    If you are reading this and if you fell
    something in your heart to help someone like me, please do help me. My urgent
    need is around $5,000. Any amount you can give is very much appreciated. If
    not, just an intercessory prayer is enough. I have a very long story to tell
    and how I wish to know you more personally to thank you for everything or if
    you want to know me also. May God bless us!

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