Should you give money to the homeless?
This was one of the questions asked by a woman attending "Homelessness in the Community," a public conversation and service activity connected with Virginia Commonwealth University’s annual Martin Luther King Celebration Week.
The conversation was led by Susan Sekerke, advancement coordinator for The Daily Planet, a nonprofit that offers integrated healthcare to the homeless. A former ASPiRE community fellow, Sekerke continues to help coordinate volunteer opportunities for ASPiRE students through her organization.
Sekerke responded that homeless people often need something more than money. She suggested that many of those panhandling likely have substance abuse problems, and a better way to help might be to give a gift card to McDonalds.
Studies seem to back up Sekerke’s response. One report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found that six out of 10 homeless respondents admitted problems with alcohol or drugs. Further, according to an article in the Atlantic, studies on homeless income find that the typical “career panhandler” who dedicates his/her time overwhelmingly to begging can make between $600 and $1,500 a month. However, since panhandlers often have no way to save their money, they spend most of their day’s earnings quickly.
Sekerke has dedicated her life to giving homeless people something they may need more than short-term money: support and direction. A study from HUD polled homeless people about what they needed most, and 42 percent said finding a job; 38 percent said finding housing; 30 percent said paying rent or utilities; and 13 percent said training or medical care.
A VCU graduate, Sekerke encountered several roadblocks and detours along the path toward her degree. As a rising senior studying dance, she was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and changed majors, setting her back two years. She received financial assistance from the Virginia Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services to help finish her degree in public relations.
After graduation, Sekerke started working in the field of advertising and marketing, but she didn't feel satisfied. She had an overwhelming sense of wanting to give back to the community, especially because of the Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services' assistance.
"Having the state make that investment in me really changed my perspective on life," she said.