Skip to main content

Killing with kindness

Much has been written about the psychology of giving, the reasons why we donate to charity and the different triggers that spark acts of generosity, some rational, others visceral. I am particularly fascinated by the impulses that lead us to give money to people begging on the street. In fact, to be candid, I am frequently left incredulous at the justification given for dropping money into that cap next to the sign that says ‘hungry and homeless’.

Research indicates that for 90 per cent of people who give, compassion is the motivating factor. So I should not have been surprised that when speaking on BBC radio last week on the subject of begging, the first question was ‘isn’t it counter-intuitive that a homelessness charity is urging us not to give to beggars’? There he is, the homeless man cross-legged beside the cash point, beseeching, grimy, desperate. Do the right thing.

A few years ago, one such man attracted the attention of Grant Shapps, then the shadow housing minister, when he accompanied us on an outreach shift. We appreciated Mr Shapps’ willingness to brave the wet and windy weather that night and by 11.30pm he was confidently approaching homeless people, looking every inch the outreach worker. After speaking at length to the man by the cash point he returned wearing a pensive expression. The story was this. The man was living in a bed and breakfast in central London and was on a methadone ‘script’ as part of a planned withdrawal from heroin. But he was going through a bad patch and had come to the cash point, well-known for being a lucrative pitch, to beg in order to ‘top up with heroin’. The shadow housing minister concluded that on the streets ‘things are not always as they first seem’.

Indeed they are not, especially when it comes to begging. It is now 10 years since Thames Reach and other like-minded homelessness charities first sought to persuade the public not to give money to people begging on the street. Over the ensuing period, numerous campaigns have been undertaken to drive home this message in towns and cities across the country. The reason why such campaigns are considered necessary is because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine. Naturally the street outreach teams are well aware of this. It is also regularly confirmed by the police following operations to arrest persistent beggars when, consistently, at least 70 per cent test positive for hard drugs. Usually the majority of those arrested are not sleeping rough but in some form of accommodation. 

There are those who contend that the recession is bringing a new kind of beggar onto the street, a person not addicted to hard drugs but simply in need of food. I am unconvinced. Data from a recent police-led operation in Birmingham that took place from August to October this year shows nothing has changed. In total 28 arrests were made for persistent begging. Six out of 10 of the arrested had their own home and all tested positive for drugs.

To understand the complexity of the relationship between the recipient and the giver, nothing is more illuminating than speaking with those who have systematically begged as a desperate vocation. Cheryl begged every day for five years around London’s Charing Cross train station. She had habitual givers who knew her well and through their contribution was able to sustain a ferociously destructive heroin habit before a social worker, after yet another hospital admission, found her a hostel, from where she embarked on a treatment programme. In Cheryl’s opinion, women are the most successful beggars because of their perceived vulnerability and, reflecting on her begging years, she was aware that, perversely, the more ill she looked, the greater grew her begging returns.

I was particularly interested to know how the interaction with her regular contributors played out. After seeing her on the streets for months, sometimes in conversation with outreach workers, they must have been aware that her problem was more than needing somewhere to live. Cheryl’s assessment was that they undoubtedly knew that she had a big drug problem but as long as it wasn’t mentioned, all parties could agreeably go about their business and nobody was left feeling bad. So, in the manner in which it is rather vulgar to ask a fellow guest about the value of their house at a dinner party, certain things were left unstated lest the warm glow of giving be uncomfortably dimmed.

Some people don’t need this charade. They are sanguine about their spare change being spent on drugs. ‘Because I feel sorry for them’ is a common justification. At which point a hot wave of anger will sometimes wash over me and my mind shifts to the front line staff, the people invariably left to try to pick up the pieces in the face of such complacency. To the hostel workers who earlier this year were unsuccessful in their valiant attempts to revive a young woman who took heroin bought largely with money begged in the early hours from the good people emerging from clubs and shortly after drowned in her bath.

So we will battle on, supporting people to enter rehab, complete treatment programmes and deal with the complex underlying issues that have led them into dependency, all the while rowing hard against the seemingly unstoppable tide of public generosity.

  This blog was first published in Inside Housing on 25th October 2013

Popular posts from this blog

Street homelessness: The dangerous appeal of the street magnets

Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. 
Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. 
In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period.  Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnerable, often drug depend…

We need evidence-based action to end rough sleeping, not post-truth emotional spasms

In my first year working with homeless people an older colleague, with foreboding, informed me that the homeless people we were supporting were more complex, challenging and needy than anybody had previously experienced.  I remember being shocked, considering it remarkable that I should be starting at the very time when the profile of the homeless population was changing so dramatically. It didn’t occur to me to ask ‘how do you know?’ 
Every year since, I have heard something like this same statement made. I was therefore not in a condition to be knocked down by a feather when, as a predictable pre-Christmas truism, it was stated that those working with the homeless were encountering an unprecedented increase in ‘the range of complex issues’. Wiser now, I understand that what I first heard those thirty years ago was hyperbole.      
A degree of embellishment in the context of such an emotive issue as homelessness is, perhaps, inevitable. However, when hyperbole descends into factual mis…

Outreach work - not taking no for an answer

There is a crepuscular light and a chilly autumn wind is sending leaves upwards into the evening sky.  Nonetheless, I maintain the ritual of stopping to watch the skateboarders at London’s South Bank.  They cavort and shimmy in the cavernous space under the Queen Elizabeth Hall, the harsh concrete backcloth these days covered with vivid graffiti.  So much life and energy where there was once misery and desperation. For this was the place where, thirty years ago, the greatest number of rough sleepers could be found.  By the late 1980s, following some misguided and deeply damaging welfare benefit changes introduced by Margaret Thatcher’s government and an absence of an effective strategy to address an inexorable rise in rough sleeping, over 120 people were sleeping around the brutalist architecture of the South Bank.  In the evening, huddles of rough sleepers would gather at tables within the Royal Festival Hall and wait for the arrival of the first soup run.
I was one of the outreach wo…