Giving to Drug Addicts

Giving to Drug Addicts

Several years back, compelled by the policy of the community development organization I was working with in the inner city of Philadelphia, I decided not to give money to people on the street who asked for help. The neighborhood had high rates of unemployment and homelessness and so requests for help, for a couple of dollars, were frequent. Unfortunately, the neighborhood also had a lot of folk who were dependent on drugs and/or alcohol. Like many others, I adopted the maxim, “Never give money to a beggar. They’ll only spend it on drugs.” Now, undoubtedly, my motivations were good: 1. I believe I am called to steward my resources well and throwing them down a drain of addiction certainly doesn’t fit with that duty and 2. I do not want to be responsible for enabling another person’s dependency and destruction. I have felt very morally justified, therefore, in my intentional choice not to give money to people on the street.

This motivation though is flawed for a number of reasons and Marc Barnes recently wrote an excellent blog addressing some of these issues, entitled ‘Giving your money to drug addicts.’

1. This policy assumes that everyone asking for money or help has a dependency issue and is either a drug addict or an alcoholic
2. This policy assumes that poor people are not able to spend money as responsibly as I am
3. As Marc puts it, this policy allows me to “simulate the whole strength of moral feeling by doing nothing. I may walk past a beggar and say, “Thank you Lord, for helping me to show your love to the poor by aiding them in kicking their drug addictions by way of my generous not-giving.”

But here’s the kicker, perhaps someone who asks you for money really does have an addiction – you can see it perhaps in their eyes, or their body movement, their slurred speech or their word-salads. The signs are all there. But now turning aside with a curt, “I’m sorry I don’t give money” is just not a sufficient response. Suddenly, “whatever money we have is not revealed to be too much to give the beggar, but woefully too little. Before we knew of a drug addiction, we were approached by a man asking for financial help. Afterwards, we are approached by a man who — in sorrow and sin — asks for spiritual and physical help. If we refuse a request for money on the part of a drug addict, it is only because we have been confronted with the infinitely larger request for healing. The Christian may not say “he’ll buy drugs,” and keep walking, only “he’ll buy drugs, and now my obligation to give alms has been infinitely widened into the terrifying obligation to visit the sick, to ransom the captive, to comfort the afflicted, to instruct the ignorant, and to admonish the sinner…To pray, to admonish, to enter into a relationship of love, to embrace, to hold, to plead, to offer help, to offer to arrange a detox, an entrance into an effective program, to find what began their addiction and what keeps it killing them, to be patient with their sin, their scams, their schemes — all this and more if I am to make the conscious decision not to give on the basis of a drug addiction.”

If the disciples asked, “How then shall we pray?” perhaps the cry we could be offering up is “How then shall we give?” If it is a moral imperative not to give money to those who are in addiction and we are bound by our christian “duty” to steward our resources and care enough not to enable those who ask for help, what happens when the “obligation to give alms has been infinitely widened into the terrifying obligation” to incarnate Matthew 25?

Valerie Anderson

Valerie Anderson coordinates Operations at Common Change. She received her MPhil in Development Studies from the University of Cape Town and has spent the last 6 years establishing and maintaining a range of community development projects both in her home country, South Africa, and in low-income urban areas in the United States. She is a writer, problem-solver and strategist and loves to create environments in which others can thrive. Valerie and her husband, Brett Fish, have recently returned to their beautiful home city, Cape Town. You can find more of Val’s writing at

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  • danieloerther

    Hear, hear! I love your post! Interesting how it resonates with a study I recently conducted where we discussed both types of sin. Bot? Yes. Sins of comission – where we do something ‘wrong’. And sins of omission – where we fail to do something ‘right’. Sure, it’s great to hide behind stewardship as a reason not to give, but we are called to more. We are called to give all, and by ignoring the suffering under the addiction we are guilty of the sin of omission. All of this reminds me of Mark 7:11-12 and the meaning of ‘korban’ (for a well written description see:

  • jcalexxander

    Thanks, I enjoyed the post. Reminds of the words of Jesus…”Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” Mt 5:42

  • denisematteau

    I do not give money because the professional panhandler class is a real problem where I live. But I give a little time when I can to chat and if I happen to have a little money I sometimes offer to go into the nearest store to buy them a sandwich or something. This is risky in a way most “plastic people” don’t realize. I have never once been threatened or endangered by anyone I have chosen to chat with but I have been run out of some social circles because I was seen sitting down with a derelict-looking person! Sometimes I could get bitter but God blessed me with a sense of humor, especially when my awareness of the reality allows me to comment in a do-gooder meeting, like recently when I had to point out to some plastic-people in my art -group that their plan to buy groceries for the homeless with some portion of their “charity” failed to consider that …. (drum-roll, please) Homeless People Don’t Have KITCHENS!!!!! (besides the fact the art group was keeping most of the money)

    • Brett Anderson

      hey Denise, yeah this can be a tough one to try and figure out but your example of giving them time and attention is so huge – i often think the hugest thing we can give to a struggling person is to take time to find out their name and story – everything else feels like an extra and maybe some good extras but if we give without finding out those two things it can often feel quite cold and callous [much easier to give without investing for sure and sometimes we are time pressed and so maybe something better than nothing] but it is definitely a great way to connect and then often by doing that you find out deeper needs that need to be met or facilitated or something and you can be a more effective friend to them. once you have relationship with a person then it’s a lot harder to not walk some kind of a journey with them… thankx for sharing…

  • denisematteau

    This topic also brings to mind another topic, (maybe there is already an article on it so please redirect me if possible) which is the intrinsic connection between our economy and violence. People who are content and living peaceful lives are usually not spending much money. Their needs are minimal and if they are happily sharing what they have with the less fortunate, then the “market” appears stagnant. Any statistical look at such a community might actually look better if they suffered a calamity and suddenly had to pour all their resources into rebuilding. Drug addiction plays into this because the addict is in a perpetual state of calamity that elicits action from the community. Thus, the addict is actually rewarded for performing a service of violence in the economy and any form of assistance that pulls addicts away from their recurrent crises is not likely to get much support from the larger community.

    This is why efforts to truly integrate the poor into an egalitarian community are so difficult, An egalitarian community is one in which there is no significant separation between rich and poor because “poverty” becomes just a temporary need suffered by all and easily met through faith in the Lord’s provision.

  • beetle5

    I really enjoyed this Brett. I wrote something (less helpful) on the topic a few months ago. Feel free to give it a read. Hugs!

    • Brett Anderson

      Thankx for the share neale… love the Scrubs clip… and the challenge is a real one…

  • Ian McKerracher

    I have made it a personal policy not to give money to pan-handlers. I do ask if they have eaten and, if I can, I take them for a meal and have a conversation with them. If that is better or worse, I can’t say. I must admit that there are no crowds of people in my church because of my choice. It may be perhaps because the conversations that I have had are not of the “Turn-or-burn” variety.

    • Brett Anderson

      Thanks fr dropping by Ian. I think personal face to face relationship time [like you mention by actually taking the person out for a meal] can be so valuable and if more of us did that more often [even if we just committed to building relationship with one individual] then that would make a long-lasting change for a lot of people [both them and us i imagine!] so thank you for this.