To get homeless people off Amsterdam streets, an advertising agency put homeless mannequin "piggy banks" on the streets. The result? Donations. Is this the homeless solution we've been waiting for or a sign that our humanity is in a truly sad state?
Photo credit; KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock / 360/Getty Images

Shabby clothes. Dirty faces. Cardboard signs. Think you know where this scene is going? You might be surprised. Inspired by recent articles in Dutch newspapers illustrating the growing number of homeless people in Amsterdam, employees at the advertising agency JWT Amsterdam asked the question, What can we do to help? The answer: a piggy bank for the homeless, an awareness and fundraising campaign designed to help tackle the homeless issue head-on. Some are touting this ingenious idea; others are questioning what its success truly says about our humanity.

A piggy bank for the homeless

The piggy bank concept was simple. In order to get more homeless people off the streets JWT Amsterdam would put more homeless people on the streets. The execution: Collect mannequins, dress them in shabby, used clothing and saw money slots on top of the mannequins' heads to resemble piggy banks to collect money for BADT, the Amsterdam foundation that supports the homeless.

The entire project took less than one week and $140 to create — the mannequins were sourced for free and JWT Amsterdam colleagues donated the clothing. The result is a thought-provoking online film with the mannequins on the streets of Amsterdam in situations similar to those of the homeless with handwritten cardboard signs asking for donations to support BADT.

A piggy bank for the homeless from JWT Amsterdam on Vimeo.

"Us" versus "them"

The response was positive in that it yielded donations. But the why behind its success might be problematic. Brittany Greenquist wrote for RYOT, a news website that links every story to an action, "The idea is that the mannequin eliminates the invisible barrier that seems to separate 'us' from 'them,' and instead creates a neutral ground while still raising money for those who need it most."

At first blush, this seems like the solution we've all been waiting for. We want to give, but we want to know exactly where our money is going, right? And on site, passersby did, indeed, stop, look and donate which begs the question: Would they have stopped for actual homeless people? Or is the "us" versus "them" barrier too big to overcome? And, importantly, does this matter?

Should you give money to homeless people?

"The short answer is no," Derek Thompson wrote in an article in The Atlantic, explaining, "Giving money to the homeless is an economic crisis of the heart, a tug-of-war between the instinct to alleviate suffering and the knowledge that a donation might encourage, rather than relieve, the anguish of the poor." Thompson goes on to repeat what most of us have been told, or even have been the ones to say, are the reasons behind not giving. He writes, "We're all familiar with our mothers' reasons not to empty our pockets for beggars. 'The best help is a shelter not a dollar,' she's told us, and 'They'll only use it on [something bad] anyway!'"

Does this sound familiar? Most of us are forced to say yes. This is the societally acceptable reason to not notice the homeless. Thompson concludes, "Should you give money to homeless people? The short answer is no. The long answer is yes, but only if you work for an organization that can ensure the money is spent wisely."

Created conditions

We want to give via a slot in the head of a mannequin or by using an app every time we see a homeless person.

The "spent wisely" part rubs many advocates the wrong way. Marnie Webb is the CEO of Caravan Studios, a division of TechSoup Global, who has worked with social benefit organizations for more than two years, and she disagrees with reasoning like that described in Thompson's article. Webb says, "What I hear a lot in the work that I do is that we want to make sure money we give the homelessness is given responsibly. That's the biggest reason people pull out for not handing the money over directly. A homeless person won't spend it right. They'll spend it on drugs. Or the wrong kind of food. They'll spend it on food..." Webb posits that these self-imposed rules around our giving have more to do with "us" than with "them." She explains, "Homelessness is frightening. It's an other that we don't want to understand too well so it can't be us. We don't want it to be us. The result? We want to give with conditions."

But these created conditions dehumanize the problem. Webb says, "... We want to give via a slot in the head of a mannequin or by using an app every time we see a homeless person." By erasing the people from the issue, we've changed the who we're giving to, to a what. Webb says, "People think, 'A dollar to a homeless organization? That's really helping.' [This is] nonsense."

Giving directly dilutes barriers

So what's the difference between giving to an organization versus giving to a person? And is one better than the other? After all, helping is helping, right? When we give directly to people, we recognize them and their stories and we dilute the "us" versus "them" barrier rather than saturating it. Author, activist and believer in direct giving, Heather Huffman, lives on a small acreage in the Ozark Mountains with her husband and three sons. Her involvement with the homeless began with her husband.

Be "The Sandwich Guy"

Her husband is known on the streets as "The Sandwich Guy," a huge compliment in activist terms. Huffman says, "My foray into the world of homelessness began when my husband, Adam Bodendieck, got it into his head that he wanted to go downtown to distribute sandwiches and Bibles to the homeless. Years before, he had worked on the landing and... he couldn't stop thinking about them. I helped him pack sandwiches, rounded up spare Bibles, prayed over him and sent him out the door. It wasn't long before he was known as 'The Sandwich and Bible Guy' to many of the homeless, and he'd forged many new friendships. People soon learned that if they needed anything from a pair of shoes to help studying for the GED, The Sandwich Guy could help." Bodendieck's community stepped in and donated everything from money to groceries to the needs in between so "The Sandwich Guy" could get help to the people who needed it.

The hot dogs were provided by a young couple from a local church who'd also been invited... After the first 15 minutes or so, the nerves on both sides of the equation fell away and it became nothing more than a gathering of friends.

Months later, a homeless couple named Shelly and JR invited Bodendieck and his family to a hot dog roast in their homeless camp. Huffman was nervous but decided to overcome her nerves — and her barriers — and accept their invitation. She says, "The hot dogs were provided by a young couple from a local church who'd also been invited... After the first 15 minutes or so, the nerves on both sides of the equation fell away and it became nothing more than a gathering of friends. We roasted hot dogs, chatted easily and my children cheated in a game of Go Fish with [a homeless man who had also been invited named] Dave. And I signed and gave away books. It turns out Shelly and Dave both wanted to read them but had been afraid to ask. By the end, Shelly and I were fast friends."

Huffman and her family returned the dinner invitation. She says, "I made homemade Springfield-style Cashew Chicken (when you're from Southwest Missouri, everything is fried). I can't make that meal now without thinking of them. They got showers before their meal. I remember how nervous they were to mess anything up. I soon learned the look on their faces that night was shared by most homeless people when they came inside a home. It was a mixture of fear and reverence; it was longing and a sense of being out of place. The meal was one of my happiest, and it would become a regular occurrence. We visited their camp three times — once on Christmas Day. Shelly and Dave both got me a Christmas present (a watch and gloves). I treasure these small gifts because I know they came at great cost. We'd made them hats and scarves."

All giving isn't equal

There's a broad spectrum to giving — and while all giving is positive, it isn't all the same. Huffman's story is symbolic of the mindset that comes along with direct giving that's missing from donations made to organizations. And this mindset is impactful to our humanity.

Huffman says, "I look at homeless people differently now. I've always seen them as human; I've always held empathy for them, but I'm not sure I ever really knew, ever really looked. I understand why people are hesitant to hand over money to a panhandler, but there are so many people who desperately need a little human compassion from us, and that number is growing. If I see a beggar in a store parking lot, I buy a ready-made sandwich, a pack of grapes and a bottle of water to give them on my way out. I don't need to know their story to know they've got one. If they've made mistakes along the way, that's not for me to judge; I have my own to worry about."

But still, giving is giving

So does this mean that if you're not comfortable giving directly, you shouldn't give at all? Absolutely not. The work that JWT Amsterdam did on behalf of BADT is important and impactful — it opened a conversation and got people giving. But we should be aware of who, or what, we're giving to and why.

Webb says, "If you want to give to a person, do that. If you want to support an organization, do that. But be clear enough about your motives and goals to not straddle a middle ground, giving coins to a mannequin that represents what we are afraid to get too close to. We have to help people in a way that represents who we want to be and who our society is. It matters, the attitudes that go with the helping. And that includes acknowledging that the homeless are individuals and the organizations are institutions and giving to each in a way that is appropriate."

Share with us!^What do you think of piggy banks for the homeless? Would you give to them? Why or why not?