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I’ve been wondering about a question related to giving money. I feel such a strong social taboo against giving money to people asking for it on the street that I typically don’t do it, but I also know that those individuals are no less deserving of support than others. Is there a difference between giving cash on the street or the subway, and giving to mutual aid groups or to individuals online? With limited funds to donate, how can I think about where to give that serves to build solidarity and community? How can I respond to people asking for money in a compassionate and respectful way?

Great question. We strongly believe that directly supporting someone in need is the most equitable way to give. 

There’s definitely a strong social taboo against supporting unhoused people (and legislation that makes it illegal in some parts of the country). Such anti-homeless legislation and inhumane initiatives—backed and supported by commercial businesses and real estate developers who have a vested interest in unhoused people being unseen and dehumanized—are at the core of why it feels taboo to support unhoused people directly. It feeds into the stereotypes that portray those experiencing homelessness as being dangerous or irresponsible, making it harder for folks to receive the necessary help from their communities. 

But if you want to support a person immediately and have the means to do so, giving them cash is the way to go. 

The difference between donating to someone on the streets rather than someone crowdfunding online is that the latter has to detail the “financial, physical, and emotional” problems they’re facing with photos and videos to try and gain sympathy and support. Neither is more worthy than the other, but they both stem from this country’s crushing economic and societal failures that require people to rely on the sympathy of others in order to survive.  

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Mutual aid groups and other individuals or grassroot organizations raising money for causes are also a great bet. They’re usually giving those funds back directly to people anyway or offering similar direct support like distributing food or offering transportation. I wouldn’t say they’re “better” than giving to a person, but they’re a great way to support people directly if you’re not in proximity to someone with cash on hand. It’s also important to support mutual aid in advance of a pending catastrophe or challenge your community might face so they can be there when it’s urgent, even if you can’t. 

If you’re struggling with what best serves the community, then reach out and speak to the community. Knowing where your financial and physical support is best suited requires being active and engaged within your community, including with our unhoused members. It’s then that you begin to know where that need lies and how you can do the most good, even when you feel you have so little to offer. 

If you don’t have money to give to someone asking in a moment, don’t shy away from the opportunity to acknowledge them with a response. Compassion can’t compensate for cash, but it goes further than you may realize.

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Felecia Phillips Ollie DD (h.c.) is the inspiring leader and founder of The Equality Network LLC (TEN). With a background in coaching, travel, and a career in news, Felecia brings a unique perspective to promoting diversity and inclusion. Holding a Bachelor's Degree in English/Communications, she is passionate about creating a more inclusive future. From graduating from Mississippi Valley State University to leading initiatives like the Washington State Department of Ecology’s Equal Employment Opportunity Program, Felecia is dedicated to making a positive impact. Join her journey on our blog as she shares insights and leads the charge for equity through The Equality Network.

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