Begging and Panhandling

For those who are thinking about moving to the Philippines, especially those who have never visited before, one thing needs to sink in: The Philippines is a developing nation. Developing countries around the world share many of the same problems: low employment, endemic poverty, poor healthcare, geography (prevalence of natural disasters), and so on. The Philippines is no different.

One thing that is, perhaps, disconcerting to first time visitors is the number of people begging or panhandling. Very often appearing pathetic, it is sometimes difficult to say “no”… Problem is, those doing the begging know it.

So, how to deal with begging?

Well, the first thing to realize is that there is a distinction between beggars. Some are in truly desperate straits. Others, however, are part of organized syndicates that exist solely to part you from your money. Begging can be a business.

Now, with organized beggars, I don’t think that anyone would disagree that they are being exploited. These are usually the people working the streets, in traffic, going car to car, or often those hanging around outside fast food restaurants or churches. I NEVER give money or anything to kids in traffic. It is totally unsafe, and only encourages the behavior. Often, you will see the adults nearby on the side, with five or six kids milling about. If you give money to these people, they usully only keep a small portion of what they receive. It can be very hard to look at a grubby kid’s big brown eyes and say “no”. They have this sympathy look down to an art. If you must give to these beggars, food is the best option, rather than money. That is what I will usually do, depending on how needy they look, but never in traffic. For the kids selling sampaguita or similar, I’ll sometimes “buy”, usually giving the flowers to the taxi driver for his rear view mirrow.


In the States, I am usually less charitable to panhandlers. There are social services and support networks in the USA. Drugs and alcohol fuel panhandling there (and here, too), but there is always a way out in the US if the person accepts help that is offered. Here, it is far less cut and dry or obvious. This may sound harsh, but ever since I gave food to a panhandler in the States, and was cursed at, my sympathy levels have dwindled there. Travelling throughout the developing world also puts things into greater perspective.

It is inevitable that you will eventually encounter someone begging here who you just want to help. In my case, it is two groups for whom I am a sucker: Lolas or lolos, and those who appear to be truly ill, with little or no social support.

When we first moved here, I remember being outside of Robinsons Ortigas, and seeing a woman there holding a baby. She wasn’t bothering anyone, just sitting there, and a few people tossed coins on the folds of her skirt. The baby was suffering from hydroencephalitis, or something similar… His head was maybe four times the normal size, severely deformed. Quite simply, in the Philippines, children suffering from such diseases normally die (I think that one is is usually fatal anywhere), or receive little, if any, care. The look of sadness on her face was truly heartbreaking. This was no syndicate, or someone looking for a rich kano. It was someone who was truly desperate, who knew what was coming, and could do nothing. Rebecca and I bought her some formula and gave her a P500 note. It really is all we could do. Try and give her a little hope. That vision has stayed with me in my head since I moved here. Whenever I am frustrated or angry about something here, I think of her and tell myself, “Your problems are minor… stop your griping.”

Up in Ballesteros, there is an old lola who hangs around the palengke, offering blessings to strangers. Rebecca has known her for thirty years. The lola has always been somewhat unbalanced. Whenever we go to the palengke there, she always seems to find us, and we give her five pesos. Rebecca says that the woman has always been there, and some people think she is a bruja. In the Philippines, mental health services for the poor are rare, and practically unheard of in a small provincial town. She is one of the outcasts. The vendors there in the market have all known her for years, and are sympathetic, giving her rice and some vegetables to eat every day. When we see her and give her a coin, it is always the same reaction, spoken in Ybanag while she is grabbing my hand, “Oh, you handsome americano! You know I know Rebecca many years! She very lucky!” She’ll walk away cackling happily. Very pleasant outlook on life. Rebecca will usually also buy her a calabaza or mango.

In Tuguegarao, at the Jollibee at Tanza Junction, there is one kid who is always in the car park. He was born with one arm, and the hand on the end is more like a “claw”. I would guess that he is maybe 10 years old now. The restaurant guards sympathize with him, and let him help customers there as long as he behaves (He does). He is always smiling. Whenever I am there, I buy him a piece of chicken and give him 50 pesos. The fact that he is always so upbeat… always helpful. Calls me “Sir” (NOT “Joe”) and Rebecca “Ma’am”. This, despite his obvious hardship. I may be a sucker, but for some reason, with this kid, I don’t mind.

Whether we are in Manila, or on the highway, or in the province, there is one group to whom we always give something: Native Aeta, or other Igorots who we see walking on the side of the road. They are easy to identify, normally wearing “native” clothing and sticking together in groups. In Manila, they usually come looking for work, and finding none here, resort to begging as a last resort. We’ve bought bus tickets for a couple in order to go back home. These groups usually speak little, if any, Tagalog, but usually understand Ilocano, Ybanag, or Itawis, so Rebecca can communicate with them. She has a soft spot for them. She knows the reason they come to the city, and she knows that very often the best place for them is back home (Most are totally unprepared for urban life). This sympathy goes back years, when some Aeta nursed Rebecca’s mother back to health after she caught dengue in the mountains years ago. Her mama stayed with the Aeta for around six weeks, and they never asked her for a single centavo. Since that time, Rebecca and her family always try and help Aeta whenever we see them.

So, I gave the above examples to show what and when I personally give. Really, if you want to help, a donation to the Red Cross, a church, or Bahay Kalinga will be much more useful and beneficial. Or will a food donation. Everyone has their own limits and beliefs. However, when you live here, this is an issue you will face, like it or not, and you need to decide how you will deal with it.

Post Author: JohnM (207 Posts)

John Miele is a Citizen of the World, having spent time in many locations around the globe. Currently, he finds himself in Manila, but travels throughout the Philippines. John joined the Live in the Philippines Web Magazine in mid-2008.

Live in the Philippines Consulting


  1. Neal in RI says

    Great article.
    I have experienced seeing poverty in the RP, and it will be one of the hurdles I have to deal with. Once you have kids of your own it is tough to see children that are truly needy.

    • John Miele says

      Neal: It is hard, but you always need to keep in mind that if you give money, you are often supporting the adults who exploit them.

  2. AmericanLola says

    A good article! Yes, it is hard to see those kids on the street. We have a lot of Badyao here, whose tribal livelihood is panhandling when they are not boat-people in their native place. We carry cookie packets in the car, usually peanut butter, which is highest in protein, to give these beggar kids. We figure that something to eat is a good thing, which money is not. Those who come to our gate get sardines in a can, noodles and maybe a 1/2 kilo of rice, but no cash.

    • John Miele says

      American Lola: We stock up on sardines and slippers for them in advance of Christmas. Useful items that they appreciate.

  3. Paul Thompson says

    Like you I have a soft spot for Aeta’s, and during the time of the US Navy here in Subic they lived in the largest part of the base that was the rain forest. The Navy had strict rules that they were to be left alone, and their living space was never to be entered. The service they provided was extra base security, as they prevented any and all nefarious types from climbing the fences or entering the base through the rain forest. The Aeta people lived on the base and walked around and were treated with respect. The Navy provided them with Rice that they earned by doing landscaping work around the base, they didn’t want money. During the Vietnam War they were hired to teach American and foreign Military Special Forces how to live of the land in a jungle environment.
    Sadly today, the Philippine government provides nothing to them. They are now seen in Olongapo and on base selling Bow and Arrows, blowguns and other native crafts they make. I will give them money because of the service they rendered to the United States, including hiding Philippine Scouts and American Soldiers from the Japanese during WWII.

    • John Miele says

      Paul: I knew that they helped train soldiers in tracking, but I never knew about them living on the base… Kind of cool, and sounds like it really was a symbiotic relationship. They are always so shy when I’ve met them, and I have a deep respect for their struggle to maintain their culture and traditions.

      • Paul Thompson says

        They have a tourist deal on the edge of the rain forest, it’s a replica of an Aeta Village, where they will teach you how to find water, make fire and make tools out of bamboo. It’s an interesting few hours. If you desire to see them in their natural environment, with their heads held high. It’s a nice place to visit. And all the money supplements’ the tribe.

    • Neal in RI says

      JEST School in 1983
      A Marine friend of mine visited the po a few years back and he told me that JEST has become a touristy type thing now.

  4. Bob New York says

    As you may have read in one or more of my previous replies, I saw and learned of what I call the ” Beggar Kids ” on my first night in The Philippines. My filipino friends told me how to deal with them, don’t give anything to any of them because if I did, more would just come out of nowhere with their hand out. If they become bothersome just say ” Wala ” ( pronounced something like Walaaaat to them in a stern but not scolding or threatening tone of voice ). That seems to work for me.

    On my last visit I saw something I had not seen on previous visits. At the top of the stairs of a pedestrian crossover bridge leading to a shopping mall I saw a small child with absolutely no clothes on, absolutely nothing at all. I momentairily glanced at this and just kept on walking. I later asked my friends about this and was told they are ” Bajas ” ( ? ) , something like gypsies that just seem to come into town from somewhere else.

    If I find something that interests me which is usually some kind of organization, charity drive, educational facility etc. things like that might incline me to make a donation. When I am approached to make some kind of donation or otherwise give away money, for me it’s usually an instant turn off.

  5. says

    When I entered the Philippines for the very first time I did not suffer from culture shock that my friends said I would, I kind just slipped into it like a well fitted shoe. However one thing that I did see that bothered me were the starving street kids. This is one thing that pulled at the ol heart strings, now I know that A) it is against the law to give the kids money, because it just goes back to their handler and the kids still remain hungry. and B) It is just not smart to start giving money as they will see you from a mile away and each day will beg you for more. So in short it is a bad habit to start.

    Now the one thing that we find helps and we know that the kids are getting some food in their stomach, is from time to time the wife and I will go to Julie’s Bakery and buy quite a few small cheap bread rolls, some juice boxes, a jar of sandwich spread and some ham. We would then make up a few dozen lunch bags with a Sandwich and a Juice Box, and then go to where most of the street kids hang out near the central hub in the town and hand out these bags to the kids that were begging. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing a child that is starving sitting down and enjoying his first meal in probably a day or two. The children are very grateful for this. I know it is not much, but at least it is some form of charity that is actually helping in some small way. It is also a direct way to help as it is straight at the source. If you give money to a charity, how much of that actually gets used for the cause.


    • John Miele says

      Bilko: it can still be difficult to say no when you see someone truly desperate. Food is always best, in my opinion

      • says

        Yea I agree sometimes it can be very hard to say no, this is why the wife and I make lunches and give them to the street kids, this way at least we know they are getting a meal.

        There was this lady that hangs around one of the Julies Bakeries in my town, with her hand out all the time, the first time I encountered her, I ignored her and kept walking, I felt GUTTED that I did that. The next time I visited she was there again and I bought what bread I needed and I gave her 45 pesos of my change. She smiled and as I was driving away I looked back and saw her up at the counter buying some bread. I felt much better. But yes I agree sometimes it is VERY hard to say no!

  6. says

    You’ve done a great job of articulating a dilemma for anyone living here–to give or not to give.

    Like you, I am more likely to give to the elderly but I don’t give to kids walking around in traffic.

  7. Mark G. says

    In Calbayog City we don’t see too many street kids but once in a while there’s a boy and his sister who sit outside the Jollibee. They aren’t really beggin but you can see the hunger on their faces. They are dirty and unkempt but they are not bothersome. My wife and I usually buy them a burger or two, some fries and a drink. They are usually grateful but sit right down to eat straight away. Being from the same town my wife sympathizes with them and both of us don’t mind the minor cost of a little extra food. When we travel though I let her be my guide. Some kids or older people she will give to and some she won’t. I think she does a pretty good job of weeding out the truly needy from the greedy. She’s instructed me to just say ‘wala’ and let her take care of it, lol. She knows I’m a softie when it comes to kids.

    • John Miele says

      Mark: Rebecca is better at it than I am… I think that the amount of travel I do also hardens me to it a bit. I’ll never forget the first time I went to India and was innundated after I gave 5 rupees to a kid outside the hotel. The hotel guards literally needed to pull me from the mob that quickly surrounded me. It was a very quick lesson…

  8. John Leick says

    Good article John. I agree with you on how to give; there are so many legitimate ways to give. My GF keeps food in her car, and as she encounters poor kids, this is what she gives. She also works on feeding programs for kids in remote areas. Next month she will be on Negros working on a program to teach remote locals how to prepare food for sale; they will then be given some small start up money, kind of micro financing. In China they have a saying, “It is better to give a man a fishing pole rather than a fish.”

  9. sugar says

    Hi John – Good post. I’ve encountered all kind of beggars, from kids, to oldies.. more once an old woman wandering but she wasn’t begging for money, but for blood donation for her grandchild. Another type those who beg for bus or jeepney fare. The most common perhaps are the kids (likely belonging to a syndicate) who would beg for money, and then the following day, you’d see them again.. and again, and again..more like bothering not begging. And how about this.. a foreigner beggar… near Taft avenue.. he he.

    I don’t give money to beggars..unless I really feel they are in need. I usually just give food. I remember, coming out from Starbucks, few sips large juice on a really hot day, I suddenly just gave it a young lady whose been sweeping the whole of street. I’d never give that drink to beggar. He he.

    It’s best to give food to beggars, they always look hungry…sad

    • John Miele says

      Sugar: I’ve seen a couple of foreign beggars here. They usually appear to be backpackers who ran out of money. As to the blood donation, I’ve been through that. At most hospitals in the Philippines, if someone needs blood, you usually need to find a replacement before it is given. Last year when Rebecca’s brother caught dengue and needed four transfusions, we had to do the same.

  10. says

    Hi John … You’re right about the panhandlers here. Even in our little town of Calbayog, we have plenty. I too have a soft spot for the elderly and always give them coins from my pocket. The children only occasionally. Another problem with the children is if you give some to one, they tell their friends and soon you are swarmed with children looking for a peso or two. We have a blind guy here that plays the guitar, you can see him on You Tube, and I’ll bet he get more money per month than I have. There is only 1 old person that I have not given money to. When he comes around he is in a special made tricycle for him and he has a child with him to collect the money. All he does is sit in the tricycle and look sad. I really like the smile I get from giving the lolas and lolos money.
    In the US there was a guy that had a sign that said, “Will Work for Money”. I tried to offer him a job for a meal and some money. He said, “I don’t want no job”. That stopped me from giving money to beggars then.
    Some of the children here sure can get big, sad looking lips when asking for money. I finally learned to ignore most of them, but some of them really look like they need something and I just can’t say no, if I have the money. Most of them are really polite though, like your 1 armed kid. I appreciate that they appreciate me giving them the money.

    • John Miele says

      John: When the kids are selling sampaguita or something, I’ll usually “buy”… The ones that bother me are the real hustlers in Manila that play the bongos from the back of the jeepneys in traffic… They can be real pests.

  11. corjo says

    A couple of people have mentioned Calbayog.There in Porok 5 Barangay Hamerawan there is an old Filipina just the wife of a pedicab driver in the morning at about 4 she sets up a table and brings out rice gruel.The locals who can afford it pay her 2 peso for a serving,Those who do not have the 2 peso get breakfast free.Every morning she feeds the crippled and insane.I have never heard her ask if her efforts or money is wasted,She does not take donations but she has created a community spirit and involved the whole barangay by helping in a very simple way.
    There are just so many ways to help ,support a child through school, adopt a child.Use your skills to work unpaid for your barangay or church group.It helps you to integrate and brings you respect in your barangay.Yes you will waste money and you will get things wrong but its better than doing nothing

    • says

      That’s very nice of her. I have passed through there quite a few times, but have never stopped. I can see how that would promote community spirit. I wonder if I can convince the relatives here to do something like that?

    • John Miele says

      Corjo: It really depends on your comfort level. The examples I gave are just me… everyone has their own limits. However, a little help in the right place at the right time CAN make a difference in someone’s life.

  12. says

    Good article and lots of good advice in the comments. In the States I spent 4 years full-time working and living with a mission that took in homeless, parolees, ex-prostitutes and such. I learned alot about the mindset of the different types of what I call ‘desperate’ people. As you noted, they are not all the same. Some because of some bad breaks, some because of bad decisions and some (in US anyway) because they prefer it to working a job or having responsibility.

    I agree, if giving anything food is the best option. I find it hard to stick to always saying ‘no’ when they are selling some trinket. Especially from old folks. There’s a blind man who plays electric guitar outside a church on Mactan that I love to stop and listen to, so.. he gets some pesos and I get some good music, a fair trade.

    I think pan-handling is far more common in the US than here in the Philippines though. Let me qualify that.. except for the bigger cities. It seems the downtown and big city areas like Cebu, Manila are far more likely to have pan-handlers. But in smaller towns like the ones here on Mactan/Lapu-Lapu.. I can’t think of one pan-handler I’ve seen in weeks. They are usually selling food, load-cards, crafts, candles or something in exchange. The only ‘pan-handlers’ would be the truly desperate, the ones who are handicapped. But on Mactan it seems anyone who is able-bodied is willing to sell something in exchange for pesos. Maybe it’s a big-city/small-city distinction. (?)

    • John Miele says


      Something about that story just doesn’t sound right… he sounds mentally unstable. If you are in that desperate shape, the US Embassy will get you back to the US, but you need to sign a promissory note and they WILL collect from you. Yeah, you need to prove your story and convince them, but I know several people who were helped in this manner. It ain’t cheap, but it can get you out of a serious jam.

      He really needs to pester the British Embassy, since he is a Brit. I don’t know what assistance they provide, but I’m betting they have SOME way to re-patriate him. It sounds like he may have ignored the help he was offered because he wants to stay here, if his story is true.

      Additionally, these “millions” he supposedly has should be accessible, some way, somehow… if only after a few days.

  13. Murray says

    We have a bunch of squater families living 10 minutes away from us in Angeles. Every Saturday my girl and I go to the market and buy rice, veges, and chicken, about 1000 peso worth. We take it to the families and they insist that we join them for the meal. My son really enjoys playing with the kids, my girl and I enjoy the company. I usually end up buying a couple of bottles of emperador for the men although I don’t imbibe with them because the stuff makes this Kiwi go crazy. I wish I could do it more than once a week, but once a week is all I can afford.

  14. Papa Duck says

    Giving food is always the best option because you always know that person will get something to eat. Here in the states panhandling is against the county ordnance and the will be brought to jail. Most of the panhandlers will just buy beer if they are given money. Our local city has a ordnance where you can’t camp in public. Thanks for the very informative article and have a nice day

  15. PalawanBob says

    The whole situation about population and poverty is totally out of control.
    It’s chaos to say the least.
    Manila can only be described as chaos city.
    Looks like Armageddon after each tropical storm.

  16. says

    Hi John – Maybe I’m considered ‘kuripot’ Bisaya for miser but I have a golden rule regarding all beggars young old or otherwise I give nothing. That way I can honestly say I won’t offend just a few, but neither will I be accused of favouritism. If I attend church I give my offering, if the local elementary school asks for a donation I help or if I can help my favourite Bethany, I do. When approached even in traffic I utter the words ‘dili lang’ no thank you followed by ‘walay kwarta’ no money and if they still persist I tell them I’m ‘pordoy’ skint. The former usually works but the latter gets home the message and the fact you attempt to speak the local dialect usually ensures immunity from most beggars. Yes it’s hard to pass someone with a hand out but I as a realist cannot solve the problems of the Philippines so I prefer not to even try otherwise I would worry if I did right or wrong.

      • says

        Hi Robert – I never said I don’t give to charity ( read my blog) what I said was I don’t give to beggers on the street.

        • Robert says

          Hi Jim,
          The reason I said what I did was because of your rule of never giving to
          those you encounter on the streets, apparently that applies no matter what.
          So if you are approached by the elderly or handicapped who obviously can no longer earn a living you would stand by your golden rule ?
          I’ve seen people who are obviously poor dig into their pockets to help others who are in even worse shape than they are. Giving to charities sound good
          and is a good idea in many cases but we are also aware of the scams some of them pull and most people don’t bother to do research to see which ones are legitimate. Sorry to have criticize you but I have to stand by my original comment.

  17. Scott Fortune says

    During my visit I was approached once, while in Baguio, by a beggar. It was an very old woman in ragged clothes. She looked like she lived outside. Her skin was hard and wrinkled, and she looked like she lived a hard life. I gave her 10 pesos, and she asked for more. I told her no more, and she left. My line of work has taught me some things about the elderly, they are not all nice, and do not all deserve respect from their younger counterparts. I would give food to a child before I gave food to an adult. And adult has the ability to do something for money. To earn some money to buy food. Children, have no say. They are born into this world without asking to be, and rely on adults for their food and way of life. It would be a nice dream of mine to come true where I could help the children. I’ve tried to help with educational donations from the States, but am blocked by Philippine red-tape. Which, seems worse than American red-tape. I will do what I can when I get there though to help children to have what they need to have an education. Education is the one things that can ensure a better life for ANY child.

  18. Mike P. says

    You hit a homerun with this post. The best I’ve read in some time. Thanks for sharing and I commend your thoughtful generosity.

  19. Dave Hill says

    Maybe the beggers aren’t there for themselves. They are put there by the gods to test you. If you fail–you reap the reward or the punishment. Some might even be Jesus or Mohammed in disguise. Be careful you might just spend 10,000 years in purgatory for showing your annoyance. Pero nagbebiro ko. Play it as it feels. There is no solution for all the human requesters who have their hand out. I’ve tried several methods from hostility to giving without being asked–none are satisfactory dealing with lahat mga palugi. Just be thoughtful and play your heart.

  20. James Watt says

    I suppose I’m another ‘Jim’ regarding beggare.
    My policy is learned from experiences gleaned from 40 years travelling.
    Either you give to every beggar, or none. I cannot afford the former option, so the latter is the one my wife and I use.
    Hard hearted? Mean? Uncaring?
    Like others I know about gangs of scammers, we see child sharing in Davao Oriental where we live.
    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I read somewhere ‘it is illegal for foreigners to to give to children in the Philippines’.

    I told an adult beggar I had no money, he went begging to give me some.
    Last night some children begged us as we left a restaurant, I scared them off with my Taser.

    We treat our workers well, and tip waiters/waitresses, becauause

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