Why did I stop giving money after living homeless in New York?

Alan Emmins is the author of Bench Bugs: Portraits of Homeless New York

Follow the Homeless in New York Blog here.

Homeless in New YorkBefore I lived homeless in New York I gave money to homeless people on pretty much a daily basis. When I came off the streets I stopped.

Noticing this, a friend asked if it was because I now knew that they used the money for drink and drugs, or because there were too many ‘scams’. It wasn’t that. Some did use the money they got for drink or drugs, but as I have not lived their life and am not walking in their shoes I have no interest in making judgments. As far as I am concerned, a homeless person has just as much right to enjoy a beer with his friends as I do. If I give him a couple of dollars and he buys beer, good for him if that is where he is on that day. As for drugs, I think we have to realize that, just as in normal society, there are people who are homeless who take drugs. Just as some fashion designers, musicians, salesmen, doctors and bankers etc., do cocaine and heroin, so do some homeless people and I for one can’t help but feel their need for escapism is somewhat greater.

As for scams, what makes it at scam? Is it a scam if they are not homeless but only unemployed, and in fact have an apartment and a wife and a kid who goes to school? Until you have held out your hand and begged money from a passing stranger you have no idea the levels of desperation it takes to get you there. You have even less of a clue about what it does to your soul, and your ability to look yourself in the eye and feel human.

I stopped giving money to homeless people because I left my homeless in New York project concerned about the things that made homelessness sustainable, by which I mean anything that enables somebody to exist in unacceptable circumstances. I couldn’t escape the idea that charity, especially disorganised ad-hoc charity, plays a big part in making homelessness sustainable.

There are two main areas of concern for me, and the first one is to do the the general public giving money directly to homeless people. When I give money to a homeless person I know I am helping them at best for maybe the next hour of their life. But I also know that my money probably means they are less likely to walk 10 blocks to a soup kitchen that will ensure they get fed right after they have seen a doctor, or taken a shower, or got help replacing the ID they need in order to get on a programme capable of getting them off the streets. Once my money is gone the homeless person stands in exactly the same predicament as before, that of being homeless, having a desperate need for the right kind of help, and still needing a dollar.

I know that most people give money with the best intentions, they recognise somebody in need of help and equally recognise that they are in a position to give help. And you get to feel good about yourself at the same time. Right? The polite part of me wants to say, remove yourself from that equation. But really, get over yourself. And know this, when you give your $1, your $5 or even your $10 or your $20, you have done zero to improve their chances of getting off the street. In fact, you have done the opposite, you haven’t sponsored a homeless person, you have sponsored homelessness.

In tomorrow’s blog post I will write about the things that I believe make homelessness acceptable in the eyes of government and big business, and all charity has a role in that. But to wrap up my point on the general public giving directly, I believe there are only two ways the general public can help a homeless person:

1: instead of giving them the dollar invite them into your home and your family, help then get back on their feet physically and mentally. Help them work their way through the beaurcpatic minefield of trying to rehabilitate themselves back into to society. Then if that miracle happens and they get affordable housing check in with them on at least a weekly basis to ensure they are getting the support needed to build a solid foundation for their future existence off the streets.

In fairness, me neither.

2: spend an hour on google and identify a local programme (not charity) that is delivering value to the problem of homelessness in your community. For me, I would expect that such a programme delivers more than food and hygiene, that it has a healthy amount of homeless or ex-homeless people on its staff and that has the overall mission not of ‘helping the homeless’ but of getting homeless people off the streets. And to be sure, affordable housing is too simple an answer, but it is a great place to put people while helping them rebuild their lives.


For me, anything that makes homelessness sustainable has to be having a profound negative effect on the goal of reducing homelessness.

making it sustainable means nobody in a position to effect a real change will step up the plate.

That is not to say that charities are the cause or that they have bad intentions. I think many of them have very honorable intentions, although I don’t think they always manage to live up to them. And in fairness it is not always easy for any of us to live up to the best of our intentions. But intent aside, soup kitchens and clothing drops allow homeless people to survive, and there’s no need to declare a state of emergency if everybody has a coat and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in their belly.

This is why incoming mayors can campaign on their ’10-year plan to end homelessness’, which when they can only hold the job for a maximum of eight years says a lot about their commitment.

So what would happen if a law was passed tomorrow banning charities targeting the homeless in New York, both organized and otherwise? Without the proper support systems in place crime would go through the roof (starvation will turn the best of us into thieves). Part of me wonders if that is necessarily a bad thing, because nobody will ever step up and put in place systems to really reduce homelessness until homelessness becomes bad for business.

Right now, and this may change, I feel like if I give money I am a part of a system that makes homelessness sustainable, and that’s a system that I disagree with.


As always, these thoughts are my own and are by no means the rule. I would love to hear from people with experience around homelessness, especially about being homeless in New York. Please comment below and I will reply.

Homeless in New York

“Digging beneath the statistics and poverty, Emmins’ is a more than human portrait,” Dazed and Confused

“An absolutely fascinating book, a portrait of life on the streets of New York,” Robert Elms, the BBC

“A book that captured, without drama and urban myth, the reality of life on the streets,” Time Out

“Cutting edge reportage – Alan Emmins sees the world with such a fresh eye,” William Shaw

“Emmins’ portraits are tender and often shake his self-confidence to its core.” the Metro

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