Helping the homeless while traveling

homelessI’ve visited some amazing places during my travels but also witnessed a lot of poverty. Being sensitive to particularly child beggars, I’m always in conflict regarding how to help. Regardless of whether you’re in Istanbul, the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, or the ‘downtown eastside’ of Vancouver, we rightly feel empathy for every homeless person we come across.

However, poverty and homelessness are more often than not systemic and throwing money at the problem only feeds the corrupt system. We should think twice before sparing our change, or at least be mindful with our charity – eg buying them food instead of giving cash. Then, we should find out about the underlying issues of poverty in a certain country/locality. It varies with time and place.

When I was visiting Istanbul a few months back I came across many homeless individuals who pretended to be Syrian refugees from the crisis across the border. Yes, initially there were indeed many such refugees; however, most of them found shelter thanks to generous Turkish homes or through state-sponsored charities. Through time, local beggars, mostly of Roma background who are considered ‘professionals’ by locals, realized they could take advantage of well-meaning but uneducated foreigners who wanted to help Syrian refugees. I could tell they were clearly not Syrians (they couldn’t speak a word of Arabic); I also found out that Syrians in general are too humble to beg and that I would have to ‘seek out’ actual refugees through local charities who were aiding them. I looked up these charities where I was able to contribute my time and money.

So the lesson is talk to locals, research online ahead of time and seek out local organizations which address the crises more systemically. While as a traveler we can’t address the bigger issues of poverty and homelessness in a foreign place, we can still help by connecting locally, donating to or volunteering with local organizations like these in Istanbul and Vancouver.


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