Do you have spare change?

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One small aspect of my life changed ten years ago when I spent a day being homeless and as I’ve volunteered and worked with many people in the grip of homelessness, it’s rung true.  


Toonies, loonies and even $5 bills.  How often have we been approached by someone living on the street asking for money?  And like most, we have probably questioned the wisdom of giving that someone money because we assume it will likely go to buy alcohol or drugs.  

We don’t question ourselves and our government as to why they think it’s ok for our citizens, our neighbours to be left on the street. Yet some of our most vulnerable people are living on the streets, suffering from major trauma, mental illness and many other ailments.  


Meeting someone living on the street means they don’t have a home, probably no bank account, license, personal ID or phone. This person is someone whose basic needs of survival and safety are in a constant state of duress.  

It was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who said last year on the Stephen Colbert show, 


“If you are still fighting for food and shelter in your everyday life, your mind cannot comprehend the mystery of the stars. Because your mind is set on survival mode.”


Imagine your day, every single minute of it is focused on finding food, shelter, safety and comfort where ever you can find it.  You feel hopeless not only because of your situation, the struggle for food, shelter and comfort but because of the mental anguish that got you there, and keeps you there. 

Then you see someone walking down the street, dressed well and looks like they have everything together, you ask for help and some “spare change”.  Their response? Typically a combo of no eye contact, yelled at, told no/to get a job/life, completely ignored or just pure disgust.  How do you feel now? 

There is common misinformation and assumptions that people are homeless BECAUSE they are addicted to drugs and alcohol.  What the studies show is that they have gone through incredible trauma (from loss to abuse) with zero to no support emotionally, physically and spiritually, and typically are born into poverty.  This trauma builds up, begins to drive bad decision making which in turn disconnects them from our communities, friends and family. Disconnection and trauma drives addiction. 

It means that the opposite to addiction is not sobriety, the opposite to addiction is connection, it’s community. 

(Watch this Ted Talk: Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong by Johann Hari for more on this).


The next time someone asks you if you have spare change how you will respond? Do you have compassion in the moment?  Give the change you have?  Look them in the eye?  Do you treat them with dignity and respect even if you don’t have the change?  

“Sorry, I would but not carrying any change today.”

If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that people are far more likely to look away, ignore or say something incredibly offensive, making the day that much harder to survive.  

So I carry change with me all the time.  I give change without question when asked, with a smile :). Ensuring that the person I interact with feels like I cared for them in that moment and treated them with dignity.  I ask their name, about their day or a handshake; the simple recognition of the humanity in all of us.  

Who cares what they do with the money. I’m not in their position and don’t even understand a small part of what they have to go through or have been through in their life.