Rachael Pells: Don’t encourage a bad attitude
There is a homeless man who sits next to a cash machine in Shoreditch at night, sweetly wishing God’s blessings upon the streams of pub crawlers queuing for cash. One Saturday, he asked me if I had any change. I muttered “no, sorry” without really thinking about it. And it wasn’t a lie- why would I be in this horrendous queue if I did? When it was my turn at the ATM, he asked me again. So I ignored him.
“Manners cost nothing by the way”, he said.
I ignored him even harder.
“Spoilt bitch”, he muttered.
Wow. Of course this time I did have cash in my hands. My own, hard-earned cash. But he’d already asked me once; twice was rude enough without the unnecessary name-calling. Now, I know that most homeless beggars are not like hipster-bating Bill here, but I don’t ever give money to homeless people on the street. I don’t agree with it. And I don’t think that makes me a bad person.
Giving someone a couple of pounds change may or may not end up going towards their next hit. I’m sure for every few heroin addicts screwing shoppers out of a few quid, there is someone who could genuinely do with a cup of tea. But why would I take that risk with money that I also need to feed and clothe myself?
By giving money to people like Bill on the street, we are encouraging the attitude that living off other people, even confronting them in the street for it, is acceptable. I resent being lied to by people pretending to be my friend, or insisting that they just need £1.50 more to get a room for the night when they have no intention of going anywhere other than the off-license.
I find that many people give money out of guilt. They see a cute dog or a “homeless and hungry sign” and somehow, consciously or unconsciously think it’s their fault. They attempt to hide their shopping bags and offer up their pennies.
But it’s not my fault that some people are in situation to beg. We all have our own battles and maybe those two pounds will be needed elsewhere. There are charities such as Crisis who offer shelter and good square meals- I’d rather give my cash to them than an untrustworthy stranger. No matter how cute his dog is.
Chiara Rimella: Kindness doesn’t kill
The problem is I’m not very good at lying– the answer to the question “have you got any spare change?”, is, 9 times out of 10, that I do. I’m not gullible enough to believe that all beggars will do with my money what they say they will, but I guess it makes me feel better to believe that they could.
Of course a lot of the times giving comes from a need to soothe our own sense of guilt. But often, for me, reaching for my pocket just means acknowledging somebody else’s difficulty – whatever the cause. I know some argue that giving to the homeless is likely to only fuel their potential drug addition and that it maintains a vicious circle, but 40p are a sum I feel comfortable to put at stake.
Ideally, the right thinking people go, if you want to give immediate relief to people on the street, you should go buy them a cup of tea, or some food. Somehow, I feel this is unlikely – a lot of people do it just out of an immediate response to an immediate request, a quick self-esteem fix. But also, isn’t it a bit presumptious to believe we know better than people what they should want – like deciding what claimants should spend their benefits money on?
Some beggars don’t want a sandwich. They just want money, possibly to buy themselves a can of beer. I will never forget when a friend presented me with the question: if that is what is going to get a homeless man through a rough winter night spent on a pavement, can you really blame him?
It’s a tricky one. Alcoholism must be discouraged. Yet it’s hard to feel on the moral high ground in the debate if you’re walking down Kingsland Road clutching a can of Red Stripe.
The crucial difference, some may think, is that I’m choosing how to spend my own money, whilst a beggar chooses not to work. It could be worth reassessing some social norms we take for granted: homelessness is not God’s retribution for someone who needs to purge their sins. It often befalls vulnerable people, who are also most likely to be vulnerable to addiction and mental health issues. By all means, let’s encourage them to get back on track. Giving to homeless charities is a safe way of doing it. Having faith in people’s good will is another one. But let’s not treat homeless people as if they all deserved the misery they brought upon themselves. The day you forget your purse at home you’ll know how demeaning asking that question is.