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To give or not to give? That’s the question many of us struggle with as we see a person holding a cardboard sign at freeway exits or along busy pedestrian malls.

What if the person buys drugs or alcohol with it instead of food? Is that even a fair question? We asked three Twin Cities advocates for ending homelessness to guide us when faced with a person who asks for money in public.

They are Cathy ten Broeke (CtB), state director of the Minnesota Interagency Council on Homelessness, Robert Lilligren (RL), executive director of Minneapolis’ Native American Community Development Institute, and Jonelle Glubke (JG), program director with the Veterans Association Homeless Programs. Their interview was edited for length and clarity.

Q: People with cardboard signs asking for money are often called panhandlers or beggars. Is there a term you prefer?

RL: We haven’t used panhandling or begging for a really long time. We sometimes say they’re signing [because they’re holding signs]. It doesn’t have the judge-y kind of vibe like “begging” does.

CtB: I start with the word “people” — people who are signing, people who are asking for money, or people who are experiencing homelessness.

Q: What do you do when you see a person with a sign at the freeway exit or on the street?

RL: I always give them a look or a wave. I don’t give [money].

JG: It’s more important to connect with them as an individual. I ask them, “What are you needing? Where are you staying? Are you a veteran?”

CtB: I roll down my window, say hi, ask them how they’re doing and ask them if they know about certain things, to see what they need. I ask, “What are you most in need of right now? — like a place to sleep tonight — and then I’ll throw out a couple of places to connect with. If it’s a quick passing, I look at people, wave, smile and acknowledge them as human beings. It’s a deeply personal, individual decision, but the bottom line is to treat people with respect.

Q: What if you want to set a good example while your kids are with you in the car?

CtB: If you think about giving a dollar, that’s one thing. But, afterward, have a discussion with your kids about what do we need to do so people don’t have to ask for money out on the street. Then work with your kids to write a letter to a legislator or a city councilperson. Have kids see something more meaningful than the dollar. What I worry about is that the kids see the dollar and think that’s it.

Q: Some people prefer not to give money. Is giving someone a bus ticket or a pair of gloves in the winter a good alternative?

RL: With the Hiawatha camp experience [last winter in Minneapolis], we just about collapsed under the weight of what other people thought the community needed. I feel like I don’t know that person and what he or she might need. It’s safer not to presume. I witnessed tons and tons of waste and the odd [donations] that people thought would be useful like crates of whipped cream. Warm winter clothes seems obvious in the winter, but if you have to carry your clothes with you wherever you go it could be more of a burden.

CtB: St. Stephen’s has a small turquoise resource pamphlet called Street Outreach that can be handed out. And anyone can call the St. Stephen’s outreach team at 612-879-7624 or 1-888-550-7624 (free from pay phones). Veterans can call 1-888-LINKVET and youth can access info here.

JG: What we really need are landlords. They have a unique role. The key to ending veterans’ homelessness is a landlord willing to rent to them.

Q: What about the person who is homeless who says, I’ve tried the shelters and they’re filthy or dangerous or a hassle to get into?

RL: We hear that a lot. We need a new model, a model that addresses the barriers to succeeding in shelters. We hear people who say, “My kids were disrespected,” or “I didn’t feel safe.”

CtB: Everything we do to improve the emergency response to people has to be centered on them. It’s about listening to people with lived experience of homelessness and understanding what it is and why something is not working. Then we have to design it around what they tell us. It sounds obvious but I think for years and years we said these are your options, this or that. We haven’t been creative enough. We haven’t been listening to what they need to end their homelessness.

JG: They’re not feeling respected.

RL: There’s an imbalance in the power dynamic when a person gives something, like, I’m the giver of money so I’m the authority and you’re the supplicant. We saw hundreds of examples of people living outside this last winter who would rather live outside than supplicate.

Q: Some people choose not to give because they don’t want to contribute to a drug or alcohol problem. How significant is that among people who are homeless?

CtB: The Wilder Research homeless surveys ask that. It’s about 20%.

Q: What don’t most people know about people who are homeless?

CtB: A lot of people still think homelessness is the fault of the person. That they created their homelessness. All of us have done things but, for money and family support systems, that would be us, too. The common denominator is that they can’t afford a place to live. Period. People will say to me, but don’t they have chemical health issues or mental health issues? My family members have chemical health issues and mental health issues, but they’re not homeless because they have money and family support. The only difference here is that we’re talking about people who don’t have those things. Housing is the solution to homelessness. People don’t quite get that yet.

JG: I hear people say that some people are choosing to be homeless. I believe that is completely false. It’s not having family support or affordable housing.

Q: Homelessness has reached record levels in Minnesota, according to the Wilder Research 2018 survey. What do you see as positive signs?

JG: Veterans’ homelessness has been cut by 53% in Minnesota since 2010. Our governor has just said he wants us to be the fourth state in the country to eliminate veteran homelessness.