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Should I give change to a homeless person on the street?

THE QUESTION

I donate time and money to local homeless shelters, but I'm conflicted about giving change when I'm asked on the street. Advice?

THE ANSWER

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Growing up north of Toronto, we loved going downtown. It was always a big deal. As kids, we would race ahead of our parents, excited to get to the Eaton Centre or to see what awaited us on the next block.

We often passed someone asking for help, but of course we wouldn't notice, until we realized that our mom, Theresa, had stopped to talk. We would run back and tug on her coat to keep going, but she would pull us into the conversation.

Mom would introduce herself and us to her new acquaintances, and ask their name. She would ask how long they had been on the street and whether they had a place to sleep. She chatted with them briefly – with interest, not pity. Then she would find some change in her pocket, wish them a safe night, and we would continue on.

We were always amazed that she seemed to have change to give every time. It wasn't until years later that she told us that she put money in her purse just for this purpose. Her insistence on including us in the conversations was because she didn't want us to ever "walk on by" someone in need. The exchange was less about the money, she said, and more about giving time – to show that someone cared about their story.

To give or not to give on the street is a personal choice.

Some people prefer to donate time, money or other items straight to programs that work toward long-term solutions for the homeless. Every major Canadian city has terrific organizations that provide immediate interventions, such as shelter, medical care and food, as well as long-term support systems, such as job training, addiction counselling and transitional housing.

Some offer to buy food or a hot drink for a person on the street to ensure that the money doesn't go for the source of an addiction. Others choose to give spare change in the moment.

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One family we know has created a tradition where the kids briefly say hello to a street person, and remind the parents to place a dollar in a shelter donation jar at home, for that person.

Homelessness is a complicated issue because you're dealing with individuals, each of whom has a unique story and unique barriers to building a better life. But the need to feel that someone cares is universal.

So when you're passing a homeless person on the street, try to offer a nod, a smile and a hello. Human connection isn't everything they need, but it's a gift we can all give.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig at facebook.com/craigkielburger and @craigkielburger on Twitter. Send questions to Livebetter@globeandmail.com.



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