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Posted by Jessica on Sep 20, 2010
Giving Money to the Homeless While Traveling

Hey Amanda! Jessica here.

First I just wanted to say thank you so much as always for your kind words about HedgehogsWithoutBorders. We're so happy you've been enjoying it and that it's been useful during your RTW preparations. Yay! And second, as Tim mentioned in his other email, we wanted to thank you for asking such an awesome question. We've actually never been asked this question before (and are hard pressed to think of too many times we've even chatted about it with other travelers). I think it'll be a great discussion point for other folks thinking about their own travels.

I guess probably the biggest caveat that I should mention before talking about how Tim and I interacted with homeless people during our travels is that we both lived in cities for around ten years prior to our RTW trip. I worked in some of Philadelphia's most impoverished neighborhoods, and Tim lived and worked in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. (And after our RTW, we spent 15 months living in Washington, DC.) So both of us – whether it was just walking home to our apartment after work or heading out for a night on the town – had a city person's typical exposure to homeless folks prior to traveling. And I'll admit, though perhaps a bit sheepishly, that living in Philly for so long tended to make us a bit immune to what we saw...or, in most cases, what we simply chose not to see.

I write "simply" but, of course, it was never a simple matter. I can't count the number of times my heart would break. I can't count the number of times I'd feel tears come to my eyes as I walked past someone. That said, I can't count the number of times I'd tell myself, "Keep moving, there's nothing you can do for them" or the number of times I felt like an asshole for thinking like that.

I have to balance the choice to ignore or help with the fact that while I don't think a bag of chips can make someone's life better, I do wonder if a bag of chips might not make someone's day better. And who's to say that having one better day wouldn't be the positive tipping point to a better life? I'm a big believer in little moments, or acts of random kindness, making the world a better place.

So what's the solution? How do we travel and interact with the homeless folks we pass along the way? Is there a way we can make a positive difference short-term and/or long-term? And – yup I'm going to ask it (because I think this will be in the back of many traveler's minds even if they don't want to admit it) – is there a way we can travel and not feel like asses when confronted with homelessness?

What follows below are the sort of guidelines Tim and I follow while traveling. Most of them have come about as we've gone along, and some (like the first one) were simply based on our instincts. These approaches definitely help us navigate such a tricky and emotional area, so maybe they'll be helpful to you as well. (Writing them all out makes them look so lengthy, but really everything below was like second nature for us, as I'm sure your choices will become for you too.) Of course, there's a bit of "swiss cheese" morality to it all – some points below just might not make sense to someone else or may even be contradictory, but they felt right to us.


  • We never gave money to any person who was outwardly aggressive or dangerous feeling. We didn't want to acknowledge aggressive behavior and certainly if someone felt potentially dangerous we'd never reach for our wallets anyway.
  • We never gave money to folks who specifically walked over to us asking for money. Even when they were completely harmless (like the older blind men who would sometimes be walked along the beach by their children in Thailand), being overtly asked by someone walking right up to us felt like an invasion of personal space. And depending on the situation and the person, there could be the potential for something more aggressive to happen.
  • We never gave money to children who asked for money. If a child was selling something like postcards, then we might buy some. But we never gave cash or even food to kids outright.
  • We never gave money to mothers who were specifically exploiting their children in the hopes of pulling on heartstrings (and wallets). Specifically what comes to mind here are the mothers along Avenue de Florida in Buenos Aires. We'd be bombarded with (adorable) children (sometimes holding smaller babies) who seemed to be wandering the streets by themselves asking for money. After saying no, we'd watch them scurry off behind a bench, get some instructions from their mom, and race over to the next unsuspecting tourist.
  • We never gave money to scammers. (No, they're probably not homeless but I figured I'd mention them here anyway.) I'm thinking about the guy who falls in-step beside you as you're walking along the city streets, makes small talk and has a bit of a cultural exchange with you, and then mentions he's trying to get money together to buy a shoe shining box or the like.

So I'd say more often than not, we did not give money to homeless people. But there were some exceptions...


  • So we didn't give money to moms begging with their children. But (and here's some of that swiss cheese morality I mentioned above) homeless folks with animals always got a bit of cash from us.
  • We'd often give a bit of cash to any homeless person providing a service of some sort or giving a (usually musical) performance. (To be clear: I'm definitely not saying all buskers are homeless! Far from it. But there seemed to be some homeless folks who were buskers, and we thought, "Cool, let's throw some coins into their hat.")
  • Likewise, if there was a mom and her children who were sort of doing impromptu selling of snacks or something (clearly not an actual stall or anything, just sort of selling whatever fit in their pockets), we'd usually buy a candy bar or something from her.
  • In countries where there were super tiny denominations – like in Cambodia with the 100 Riel note (which is worth about .02 cents), we'd give 100 Riel notes to the homeless people we saw (excluding our caveats from above, like aggressive folks). This would often be the amount that many of the locals gave to the homeless too, so it felt like a way to fit in with local tradition without being all "I'm a Westerner and let me be ostentatious about giving you money."

  • Any money we found on the ground was given to the next homeless person we saw (again, with the exception of the aggressive etc caveats listed above).
  • If we spotted someone up ahead on our walk that particularly pulled at our heart strings, we'd chat quietly to one another to decide what amount, if any, we wanted to give.
  • In an effort to help more folks in the long-term, we sometimes donated to local organizations that focused on street children, landmine victims, homeless families, or homeless women. (We also have a penchant for street dog organizations, but that's neither here nor there!) Some of these organizations had local shops where we could buy handmade items or postcards, for example. Other organizations ran restaurants, like Friends in Phnom Penh, where all the cooks and waitstaff were reforming street kids being provided training. Making donations like this – either direct donations or through purchases – definitely helped ease our discomfort when we thought of the people we had said no to. And, more importantly, it helped make a difference in the work of the organizations we were supporting.
  • This next one is a very important point to me: With the caveat of dangerous-feeling folks aside, we almost always acknowledged the homeless people we passed with a friendly "hello" or "how are you?" or "we wish you well" in the local language. Like a bag of chips, a smile might not make their life better (and it certainly doesn't answer any of their immediate needs) but I'm hopeful it made that small part of their day better. People, above all else, want to be acknowledged, you know? And in a selfish way, it also helps me feel better knowing I'm not ignoring "the problem."

A few other things to keep in mind

  • If you do decide to give money, be sure to keep smaller denominations or coins easy to reach in your pocket or in an easy to get to part of your bag. Don't pull out a wad of cash and flip off some bills to hand to someone. The person you're giving the money to might not be a potential threat, but the person standing nearby observing you might be. So just be careful. It's also, I believe, just more comfortable to be able to lean down quickly with small change or small bills rather than stopping and making your donation obvious, which can be potentially uncomfortable for everyone.
  • For better or worse, homelessness was harder for us to ignore in Southeast Asia than it was in Europe or South America. This might have to do with the increased amount of physical deformities, like landmine injuries in Cambodia. Or perhaps it was that relatively, the poverty we observed in Southeast Asia was considerably worse than the poverty we saw in Europe or South America. Either way, saying no became a bit more difficult for us – which is why we started giving 100 Riel notes, for example.

Also keep in mind, of course, that the things above are just what we did. (Remember, your mileage may vary.) Your approach might look completely different and that's fine. And if you decide not to give anything ever, that's okay too. There is nothing in the world that says you have to do so. The only thing you have to do is what feels right to you, ya know?

Okay, I think that's about it for our approach to everything – I hope some of this will be helpful! And definitely let me know if any of the above brings up more questions. It's a super important topic and I'm so happy you've given us the opportunity to write about it.

Happy Travels!

—Jessica (and Tim)

If you enjoyed this story, you might also like these ones:

Maggie (Tim's sister)
September 20, 2010 at 3:28pm
You wouldn't think there would be homeless people in Annapolis, Maryland but there are. On a few ocasions Charlie and I have been approached by some homeless people asking for money. I have always refused as people have been known to be scam artists around here. Nevertheless my heart would always make me feel like a royal ******* due to my decions not to give any homeless person money. I prefer to give my money to charites that help the homeless as I know these places will not scam me. I know it sounds really cold hearted, but I find I trust charitable organizations more than I turst people these days…

September 20, 2010 at 3:29pm
Maggie, I don't think it sounds cold-hearted. Don't worry. Like I mentioned in the article, neither Tim nor I really gave any money to homeless people when we lived in Philly either. It was really only when we started traveling outside the country that we started re-thinking our approach. (And again, that's just our approach. It doesn't mean it's the right way, it's just what worked for us.) But in general, we do not give money to homeless people directly.

I do, personally, wonder about the validity of the "homeless person/scam artist" stories that we've all heard about. Who knows, maybe they're true (or maybe there's one "homeless" person somewhere who truly was a scam artist and now his story has become an urban legend?)…but, and again this is just my personal opinion, I don't think that's the case for 99.9% of the homeless population in the world today. I think most people who are homeless are truly homeless, no scam or strings attached. *shrugs*

Again, though, that's just me. And just to reassure you one more time: I definitely do not think you're cold-hearted. Far from it, you silly woman. ;)

Fears Not
September 20, 2010 at 3:30pm
I am from South Africa and, maybe even more than Jessica and Tim, homeless people and beggars are part of my everyday life and I too believe in random acts of kindness, however…

The question I always ask is whether I am really helping or not. I have been involved in poverty alleviation programs and realised, with time, that giving is not always a good thing as, in many cases, people start to depend on that and don't try to change their situation – you can see that as either the victim mentality or the giving of the fish as opposed to the teaching to fish.

We once had help centre / soup kitchen for Zimbabwean refugees. We found that the same people came back week after week after week just asking to be fed. One week a young man came in and asked for nothing else but a knife so he can start to carve wooden figures and provide for himself.

So I always ask if, with giving, do I teach or confirm to someone that begging is a way of life, or do I really make a difference. I always never give cash but if someone tells me they are hungry I would take them to the store and buy them food. Not a packet of chrisps but a bag of rice of something similar.

It is also very important to remember that people who beg often have a pimp and that very little of what you give the beggar ends with them. Most will end up doing nothing but enrich the pimp.

September 21, 2010 at 9:43am
You've really hit the nail on the head with many of my thoughts through the teaching a man to fish analogy. And while I haven't often worked directly with the homeless population, I do agree (just through my other experiences and/or observation of human nature) that it can be very, very difficult for folks to find that spark to change their situation (whether it's anything from being homeless to being in an abusive relationship) when there's no urgent need to do so.

People can be creatures of habit, and when situations are such that habits can remain the same (i.e. Okay, my husband is being nice to me again today…maybe everything will be okay and he won't hit me anymore), I think people generally keep treading water. Change can be a very scary thing, even for those of us who have stability/homes/jobs. I can't even begin to imagine what it must be like when a roof is no longer over my head.

You raise a good point too: giving food to someone can be another way of making an immediate difference. Depending on if a traveler had some food with them, it might mean a bit more time (going to the market, coming back, etc)…but it might be a good solution for folks who don't want to give money but who want to do something immediate for a particular person.

September 22, 2010 at 4:19am
Good advice, Jess.
One size does not fit all.
Each homeless situation can be different. After working in Philly for 9 years I have come to be aquainted with some regulars who dress as well as any neighborhood kid in my home town. There is a difference between homeless and pan-handling but hard to discern 6,000 miles from home.
I prefer the food method when confronted and would gladly hand over snacks. Money is best (although you have to hope your charity of choice is honest)given where it can do the most good as determined by the locals.
September 22, 2010 at 2:40pm

…There is a difference between homeless and pan-handling…

Janet, that's a great distinction which seems to speak to the situation that Maggie was expressing concern about above. Very good point!

September 22, 2010 at 2:45pm
All very interesting and Jim & I have often questioned whether we were actually helping or hurting. I do love the grass roots organizations like Friends in Cambodia or the Mouse Books in Laos. I feel as if I"m actually contributing to a worthwhile organization that is actually teaching someone to provide for themselves. We did sponsor a years worth of school for a child while in Malawi and, again, felt we were helping them learn to help themselves. This does not mean it didn't rip our hearts out to see the street orphans in SE Asia or the poverty stricken of East and South Africa, but at least we feel we may have helped someone.
and I LOVE the idea of providing a snack or at the very least a smile and hello to help both ourselves and the homeless that they are people too and sometimes, making someone's day is enough at the time! Great post.
September 24, 2010 at 2:50pm
Oh neat! We'd never heard of Mouse Books, and I just checked out their website and it seems like a really cool organization.

I think the examples you gave are really great. They're perfect ways that travelers can make a difference, whether to an awesome organization that does amazing work or to an individual child who might just need that extra boost.

And I'm so glad you like the post! My fingers are crossed it will prove helpful to loads of fellow travelers. It's such a tricky and very personal topic, and I don't think it's talked about that much, ya know?

September 28, 2010 at 2:52pm
This is always a dilemma when traveling…to give or not to give. I usually go with my instincts and occasionally give, depending on the situation (and the pushiness of the people as you mentioned).

One thing I do when traveling is take any leftover food from a meal that I can't finish, and then give it to someone on the street who looks hungry. That way the food doesn't go to waste, and I feel like I've helped someone a little bit.

September 28, 2010 at 3:01pm
That's a great idea about the leftover food!

It's all such a delicate situation, isn't it? I was thinking the other day about how Tim and I definitely give less money to the homeless in more developed countries…which, thinking about it further, has me scratching my head a bit because homelessness is homelessness no matter where you're located. On the other hand, I think more developed countries usually have more resources for their homeless population than, say, Cambodia does…

Argh, tricky stuff.

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