Learn Empathy For The Homeless: Give Them Cigarettes

By Darren Smith, Weekend Contributor.

cigaretteIt’s time for some out of the box thinking.

I performed a very informal study to discover a way the average person could engage homeless persons in the hope of fostering empathy for these citizens, their lifestyles and outlook.

Most of us are removed from direct interaction with the homeless. The closest approach is perhaps to give them money and to then walk away, with little more than a greeting and a thank-you being the entire discourse. Our time among them is momentary and relegated to simply a transaction initiated and dismissed by each side with expediency.

I discovered cigarettes can change it all. Now, we can have a dialogue.


A fallacy most fall into is advocating for the homeless by “slacktivist” measures, that is, devoting perhaps 100 keystrokes to sound off demands that more be done for the homeless. This is of course while they slack off using their smartphone while watching a football game. Or too often they subscribe to the belief that making a ten dollar donation to the local soup kitchen via Pay-Pal provides the street-cred that one knows and sympathizes with the plight of homeless persons. While the kitchen can always use the money, No, neither that nor a pathetic politician serving food at a Salvation Army kitchen for a photo-op on the campaign trail is going to absolve a person of having ignored the homeless, pretending to know their situation and difficulties.

It is interaction that is lacking. Most people never talk to homeless persons on an interpersonal level, and most homeless people believe there is little chance of being heard as they are accustomed to being dismissed so readily.

A less mentioned aspect of giving alms to the unfortunate, especially the homeless, is that most of the emphasis for aiding these people is limited to items such as food, shelter, and warm clothing–basic survival needs. Programs to provide these, alcohol rehabs, shelters, etc. serve a need but a fundamental benefit is absent. Has anyone really considered that the need for Happiness and Friendship should be offered in the mix?

Our society, as a matter of policy, only attempts to meet the physiological needs and half-heartedly the Safety needs of the homeless. It greatly lacks Love and Belonging and especially fails in fostering a sense of Esteem in the hearts of those on the streets. A reason for this is because the average person, as I mentioned, is removed from the homeless and collectively this results in a schism between the two. Each is a faceless abstraction of the other.

And this is where the cigarettes come in.

Cigarettes for the homeless? No, I am not upsetting a nebulous claim that we are poisoning the lungs of people who are down and out. Here is a little secret most homeless people smoke.

Homeless people have little money (obviously). In states having high cigarette taxation the nicotine habit is disproportionately costly: demanding such a large proportion of the homeless person’s wallet, forcing them to somehow mitigate these demands. It is either smokes or other needs, since money is usually low. Sadly, mitigating these costs reduces many to beg for cigarettes or worse to sift through ash cans or find on the ground recently discarded cigarettes. Now which is a worse health situation for the homeless, giving out new cigarettes knowing that the homeless are going to smoke anyway, or consigning them to second hand cigarettes having untold pathogens from being on the ground? This is not a heartless characterization of the homeless, it is instead the reality on the street.

I first started my experiment by purchasing a few packs of cigarettes and ambling about one night downtown. I have noticed from past experience that giving spare change to a homeless person is always met with a thank you, but that is often the extent of it. When I came upon homeless persons who appeared to be looking for a cigarette I gave them one of mine along with a light. Most of the time, there was the Thank You yet there tended to be more interaction offered by the homeless person than was the case with small change.

I suspected that the reason for the greater affording of interaction stemmed from the fact that a cigarette is more of a token of happiness while the spare change was simply just providing for a need. It is important to recognize that these folks often have little material joys in their lives so items such as new cigarettes are prizes in many cases.

An adjunct to my observations was where I would stand on the sidewalk, holding a cigarette, and see what would come of this. I observed where some homeless individuals would just simply ask for one, but many would reach into their pocket and offer to buy a cigarette for whatever change they had in their pocket. Two offered as much as a dollar. I declined their offer of money, but instead gave them a cigarette without payment. This resulted in most being very pleased and offered conversation.

After seeing only a bit more interaction offered in just one cigarette I decided to increase the cigarette alms to three or four at a time. That proved to be a game changer.

Without one exception, when a homeless person either requested or was offered a cigarette and instead three or four were provided, it shattered the invisible wall between the homeless person and me. The act of giving several cigarettes at a time was very surprising to them and it was always met with a smile and greater thanks. But most importantly, the homeless person became very engaged with me and rather than taking the single cigarette and leaving, they instead wanted to strike up a conversation and seemed genuinely pleased that someone cared enough to offer them more.

In the multiple cigarette scenario the homeless person truly opened up for conversation. Surely someone could otherwise approach a homeless person and try to engage them in conversation out of the blue, but my experience with this is that sometimes they become defensive when strangers start unexpectedly talking to them, which in many cases is the same with all peoples. But in my experiment I would often have conversations lasting ten or more minutes talking about whatever topic we wanted. I recommend avoiding conversations about homelessness, for it will bring the wall back up. Just be a listener, tell jokes, and enjoy each other’s company: like you would any other friend.

Again these people have so little in their lives, being given three cigarettes by a stranger might be the best thing to happen that day–not to mention a showing that someone cares for them.

But whatever amount the cigarette alms are bestowed, you learn empathy through dialogue. Talk with them. Learn what each of them are about. It doesn’t need to be a profound conversation about life or homelessness or political topics, in fact I would stay away form that. Let the homeless person take the initiative and simply listen to what they have to say. Too often they are ignored and seldom do they have a chance, at least in their belief, for their words to matter to someone else and that they are respected.

I guarantee you the conversation will be different in many aspects of the white picket fence lifestyle we know, but you will also find just how similar we are and differ only in situation. Do not be condescending or talk down to them. Many will be mentally ill or intoxicated. If you converse in the same intonation and manner as you talk to your neighbor or friend you will show respect for the other person, placing each other on equal footing. Also, I would not use this approach when there are many others around, since it would interrupt the one-on-one conversation the two of you need.

By having ordinary conversation with individual homeless persons on several occasions your empathy for them and their plight will become greater and genuine. Homeless persons will no longer be abstractions, faceless political causes, or someone to be dismissed. Understand these conversations you can expect shall involve topics that are not always going to be rosy. There are myriads of personalities you will encounter, but you will benefit by enlarging your understanding of others.

By Darren Smith

The views expressed in this posting are the author’s alone and not those of the blog, the host, or other weekend bloggers. As an open forum, weekend bloggers post independently without pre-approval or review. Content and any displays or art are solely their decision and responsibility.

73 thoughts on “Learn Empathy For The Homeless: Give Them Cigarettes”

  1. Love your article. I was in a really bad mood tonight, it’s cold, wet and dark here in the UK right now. I was walking through town with an umbrella, wearing my warm, waterproof clothes when I saw a homeless guy curled up in a shop doorway just around the corner from my house. I got home to my warm, comfortable house and thought I want to help the guy, so I made him a really big cup of tea, in a plastic cup with lots of sugar and milk, just what I would like to drink if I was cold and sleeping rough. I suppose I’m scared of interacting with homeless people and deliberated whether this was a good idea. But I set off. When I got to the doorway he was curled up in a sleeping bag with his head on a box and his eyes closed. I said “would you like a cup of tea mate?” his eyes opened and his response was instant and cheerful! “yes please!” he said, and smiled a toothless smile at me. He was probably in his 50’s. He then asked me if I had a cigarette, I don’t smoke but I thought it would have been nice to have given him a cigarette, as, in that situation there can’t be much else that the guy has to look forward to, and I came home and read this article. In general I don’t believe in giving money to homeless people, far better if you can give food, cups of tea, cigarettes and kindness!

    1. Thank you for your words Roger. It’s nearly the one year since I wrote this article and I enjoy seeing others find benefit in it. Just getting through a day for these folks is more uncomfortable than most of us here can even know. When a cup of tea brings such appreciation in the eyes of a down trodden man, we at least owe them the respect to not take what we have for granted or entitled to.

      Again, thanks for your reply.

  2. What you have not done however is pointed out to them that renting a room with roommates can be more affordable than smoking and thus negated the fact that smoking is part of the reason they are homeless. For instance, in the city I live a pack of cigarettes can often exceed $12. Thus a two-pack a day habit can cost over $700 a month. Single rooms can be had for $400-$450 a month. Thus by giving them cigarettes you are indirectly perpetuating their homelessness. (Let’s not even talk about Starbucks.) A better way would be to be educate them how not to be homeless in the first place. That would make a real difference in their lives long term.

    1. This is an idiotic response. Learn how not to be homeless? Cause that’s a knowledge base? Maybe living with other people isn’t an option. Maybe smoking is how they cope with symptoms of a mental illness. I’m happy to hear your how not your be homeless curriculum.

  3. Thank you so much for this thoughtful and compassionate blog. I am a homeless woman surviving the streets of Los Angeles, and I only recently began blogging about my experiences. I have not had much time or opportunity to browse other blogs on the subject, and I just happened upon yours by sheer coincidence. It’s very refreshing to learn that non-homeless people are aware of our plight, and have the sense to offer useful items other than spare pennies. Cigarettes are in fact a rare treat for some, and anyone who gives things that are not merely survival necessities is a good person in my book. Before I became homeless myself, I was a regular giver of cigarettes, socks, hot food, and yes, sometimes beer…to the homeless that camped out at the convenience store in my neighborhood. They appreciated those things far more than the .18 cents they got from cold and indifferent people walking by. Now that I am one of them, I am much more aware of their (our?) common needs. Thank you again for this insightful blog entry, and I hope you’ll continue to help others. Bless you!


  4. Reblogged this on Fat Beggars School of Prophets and commented:
    I too have offered cigarettes to the homeless. It is an ice-breaker when meeting strangers, and in this particular demographic, it enhances Christian street ministry with powerful effect.

    It is the difference between fishing for men with a fishing pole or fishing for men with nets!

    However, as a Christian minister, I must say it is entirely optional. As one of my readers has already let me know, some ministers have reservations about it. But if you do it, I think you will find the reblogged post below to be almost prophetic.

  5. I am a street minister interacting with the street homeless frequently. I concur with your post completely with the caveat that my motive and goal is Christian ministry in particular. (I respect that such is not always the case and sense that in yours it is not, but in mine it definitely is.)

    I blog on homeless ministry all the time. And the post that gets the most viewing world-wide by far is a short one where as part of the program I suggested offering cigarettes as ice-breakers. I would love to share it with you and your readers. I would like to share your post with mine too.

    Find my post here:


    And thanx for this post. I am blessed.

    Agent X
    Fat Beggars School of Prophets
    Lubbock, Texas (USA)

  6. A very pleasant read, Mr. Smith.

    “It’s time for some out of the box thinking…” I see what you did there! Very good!

  7. Cigarette ashes, cigarette butts
    We got the other team by the nuts..
    Pull team pull.

    — McCluer High Fight Song in the 1960s

  8. Don de Drain – I think that is so true. Addicts burn bridges, and break the hearts of family and friends. It’s probably a lot easier for them to talk to strangers.

    I think they need to make shelters safer and cleaner for families.

  9. The homeless situation here in CA is a heartbreakingly complicated issue. The mild weather and homeless-friendly policies attract them in droves. Los Angeles County spends almost $1 billion a year, yes, that is each and every year, on the homeless, with about half spent on mental health treatment.

    The homeless range from drug addicts and/or the mentally ill, as well as those hammered by the economy with no place to stay who avoid shelters, which can be dirty, dangerous, and rife with domestic violence.

    It’s a mess.

    Many parts of mild Southern CA have extensive homeless populations. My husband had a favorite homeless guy he always talked to and gave money or food to. He let him sleep in the back of the work trucks, where the guy said he would “keep an eye on things for him.” Before he knew it, a homeless encampment had sprung up in front of his work. The nice homeless guy tried to help but was overrun.There were used needles and condoms on the ground. He had to completely remove the hose bib because people were washing their butts off there like a bidet and getting feces all over it. He kept calling the cops and asking for help, but the city was very homeless friendly, considering it a humanitarian point of view. There was a homeless bill of rights. A prostitute and her pimp dragged a dirty couch to the sidewalk and she started servicing Johns right there. My husband had to walk the secretaries to their cars at night for safety. He called shelters and social services, and they would sent representatives offering the homeless shelters, free rehab, and other help. They wouldn’t go. After a long while, one finally accepted an offer of free housing. He invited all his homeless friends for a party the first night, OD’d, and died.

    Finally, my husband was able to get them all removed. They stayed away about 2 weeks and then started trickling back in.

    Another type of homelessness is people living in their cars or campers. They also have car/RV camping all over the streets. Rational, sober people get gym memberships and keep clean there. Those with mental health or drug addiction issues take a dump on the street.

    The CEO of Union Rescue Mission is permanently disabled because of infections he got from working with the homeless. Plus, with Medieval hygiene comes Medieval levels of plague and disease, so anti-biotic resistant TB, leprosy, MRSA, and other diseases flourish.

    Even nice stores in nice areas will typically have their contingent of homeless with shopping carts, those perpetually on the outside. The mad. The addicted. The hopeless.

    I remember years ago my brand new truck had a lemon battery that died after the first month. I was outside my work unable to start my car, and one of the homeless lurched over to me. He was covered head to toe in sores, which I suspected were probably from meth addiction. Meth addicts pick, but I don’t know why. He was very nice and offered to try to take a look at my car. I politely declined and went inside to call AAA, feeling bad because it must have hurt his feelings that I turned him down. There was still a good person in there, within that prison of whatever he had going on. I still wasn’t going to engage with a stranger who was probably a drug addict in an empty parking lot. But it must be excruciatingly painful to be an addict, watching people look at you with disgust in their expression at your sores, but be so in the throes as to be helpless to fix it. How painful to the spirit.

    My friend did a film project in college on the homeless. After interviewing so many, he said that there is this distinct us and them mentality when you are homeless. You are outside, looking in, and to most people you are invisible. You can do the most outrageous things, and most will ignore you like you are already dead, a ghost. He said that those who are not insane when they become homeless, often become so from the drugs, and this disconnect with humanity. They are Other. Dirty. Dangerous. Odd. Untrusted.

    So I look at all of this misery. The most God Awful situation possible is for kids to be involved, especially if the mother is mentally ill or an addict. I think the answer is not to make being homeless easier. It creates Medieval situations with people sick, dying, or just plain mad out on the streets that seems straight out of Les Miserables. I think the answer is to get people off of the street. However, should drugs be allowed in shelters? If they are not, the addicts won’t go. If they are, they are unsafe for the non users, especially those with families. What about families were the parent is a user? What do you do then? Homeless-friendly policies attracts more homeless, and the county is going to collapse under a billion dollar a year and rising cost.

    I think we need to sort out the sane, non addicted people on the street due to circumstance, and have a separate, safe, drug free shelter system for them. Another for the PTSD vets who would also need addiction and mental health help. And for the addicts and insane – we need to perhaps re-open our residential mental health hospitals. We already have free rehab (with waiting lists months long). Where do you send drug addicts who don’t want rehab? Do you create a drug den where they can all go get high and turn tricks, but be off the street, subsidized by taxpayers? That’s the hardest group. No one deserves to die in filth in the middle of the street. But I don’t know how to solve this.



  10. I love this. I work with the homeless of MoCo. I hate cigarettes. I love my job. Sometimes a cup of coffee and a smoke are the only things one of my clients needs to feel ok in that moment. Prior to a snowstorm last winter I saw a Facebook post of someone headed to costco to make some purchases for the shelter to make sure the men could get through the storm ok. She did not take my suggestion of cigarettes, underpants, and wool socks seriously. But damn if those men didn’t have enough granola bars to last them through the storm! Her gesture was genuine and helpful and appreciated. Thanks for this great piece.

  11. Many homeless people are mentally ill, and their ability to make rational decisions may vary from day to day. If you have ever had someone close to you become homeless, you understand how difficult it can be for family and friends to deal with someone who is irrationally paranoid as the result of mental illness, someone who is not a danger to themselves or those around them but who has difficulty making rational choices.

    Every homeless person has or had parents. Many have siblings, some have children. The next homeless person you meet might be connected somehow with someone you know. By all means look out for your own personal safety when dealing with homeless people. But homeless people can always use friends. And sometimes it is easier for them to become friends with people who they do not know.

  12. As a Mormon, I don’t smoke. But decades ago, as a pedestrian, I witnessed a minor fender-bender in the middle of an intersection in Berkeley, California. I ran out to check on the parties involved (no injuries) and to ask they needed any help. One said, “no thanks,” but the other, a middle-aged lady, asked me if I had any cigarettes. I asked, “what brand?” ran to the corner drug store, and bought her a pack.

  13. I don’t smoke. My kids don’t smoke. Smoking is a bad choice. But, to be so freakin’ tough on homeless people w/ horrible addiction issues being smokers shows little empathy and typical liberal judgemental horse manure attitude.

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