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I live in a big city with a lot of homeless people. When I'm on the subway, I will often see them going around asking for money, food or "just a smile."

I know these people--like anyone--probably don't like being ignored and feeling invisible. However, I'm afraid I'll give them false hope by looking them in the eyes and smiling at them (since I actually have nothing to give them except for my smile).

How can I (non-verbally) communicate that I am not ignoring them/am sorry for them but that I don't have anything to give them?

I have to add that this usually happens when I am sitting in the subway train and the person asking for change is standing in the middle of the train.

To be extra clear, here is how it usually goes:

I'm already sitting on the train and, some stations later, a homeless person goes on the train too.

They then start some "one-minute speech" for the people around to hear. They start by apologizing for disturbing our trip, then tell us in what difficult situation they are (no job, no house, no money, no food). After that, they express their needs (money, water, food, cigarettes, etc..) and say that "just a smile" would be nice too. When the "speech" is over, they walk among the train passengers, hoping that someone will give them something.

What I'm currently doing when they talk and, later, when they walk in the train is: avoiding eye contact, not smiling. I'm afraid that a smile from me could give them false hope or be misinterpreted if I smile at the wrong time (like when they are telling us how hard life is for them). I'm also afraid that, looking at them while they walk in the train would lead them to think I have something to give them when I don't.

Notes and clarifications

  • Those "interactions" (or lack of) happens multiple time a week and with different people (but I also see the same two homeless people sitting on the street on my way to work).
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I'm not homeless, I've never been homeless, but I do tend to have unkempt hair, my winter trench coat tends to pick up a lot of dirt, and I go grocery shopping with a cart that some have referred to as a hobo cart. (I have not seen actual hobos with this exact brand of cart, but I have seen them with similar carts.) There have been times especially this past winter when I was having health problems that reduced my pace to not much more than a shuffle when all of the homeless people I passed wished me luck right after I had clearly passed without any intention of setting up camp beside them.

Since then, I've followed that lead, and simply stated "good luck" as I pass by them. This seems to work well. I'm in the US, not France, and I realize this isn't a public transportation answer. I would think it would work on public transportation as well, but I'm not likely to have an opportunity to test it out in this town, because there's an enforced ban on begging on public transportation. I've since noticed some respond with "god bless", and some people will say this in the same situation, and it generates the same "thank you" or "god bless" responses that "good luck" generates.

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A homeless person is a person, first and foremost.

If a person asked you for help and you were not in a position to provide it, what would you do? I'm assuming you'd just tell them that you're not in a position to help, but you'd wish them well in their efforts. Maybe you'd offer something that might move them towards what they need.

That the person is homeless does not need to factor into this.

While it may be true that there are some people who seek to take advantage of others, it's better to assume that a stranger is not trying to exploit you. If you're politely saying "No", then most people will move along. If someone continues to pester you, you can simply re-iterate: "I'm sorry. I've told you that I can't help. Please leave me alone now"

My partner works directly with homeless people and I have lived in many metropolitan areas with significant populations of homeless people. Polite, direct and honest communication with homeless people is frequently met with appreciation. When not met with appreciation, it is next most frequently met with indifference. At worst, it has been met with annoyance or further requests from that person. A confident response is usually enough for them to move on.

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