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.
It was an article that demanded an equally uncompromising response, for which the New Statesman was willing to provide a platform and I took the opportunity of writing a rebuttal. Before the piece was completed however, there was an additional, grotesque twist to the debate. A distraught colleague alerted me to the fact that the image used alongside the article, that of a young man, arm outstretched holding a cup, was of a former homeless man who she had supported. He had tackled his heroin problem and been clean for years, living successfully in a council flat before starting to use again for a short period before tragically overdosing and dying.
I included this shocking and distressing information in my original piece for the magazine. Regrettably, the New Statesman was not prepared for this bitter supplement to the story to be included though they did, with alacrity, remove the picture of the young man. I have re-produced below the original, unexpurgated version intended for New Statesman.
I hope that as 2018 progresses we will see fewer deaths of homeless people on our streets. But until we face up to the fact that the disproportionate supply of food, clothing and hard cash given out on the street are magnets, inexorably drawing people back to a place where the risks to their health and well-being are immense, I fear this horrible cull will continue unabated.
Of course, homeless people are in desperate need of food, clothing and money along with access to proper healthcare, support to address addictions and settled, safe accommodation. But where, how, when and in which combination support is given is critically important. Getting this wrong really can make things worse, and in the context of the brutal existence which is street homelessness, for worse, read dead.
Alan slept rough in south London. Toni, an outreach worker from my organisation, Thames Reach, met up with him most weeks. Over time she broke through his innate suspicion and painstakingly built up his trust. Sometimes, with her help, Alan would move into a hostel, but never for more than a few weeks. His life was chaotic, dominated by heroin dependency which was remorselessly destroying him. Toni’s attempts to help him enter drug treatment were always thwarted by his mistrust of services and, she suspected, fear of failure.
Toni also had to contend with the countervailing forces drawing Alan back onto the street. The most powerful of these was the magnet of begging. Sitting outside Lewisham station, Alan was able to beg enough money in two hours to buy a wrap of heroin. There was never a shortage of local dealers prepared to do business with him.
Rough sleeping is an incapacitating existence. It took its toll on Alan’s health which, one winter, deteriorated alarmingly, culminating in Alan’s sudden, tragic, death from pneumonia. He died at his begging pitch, his body cradled in the arms of another rough sleeper.
Thames Reach’s outreach teams work across London every night of the year. Last year we helped 1,237 people find accommodation and end having to sleep rough. It’s challenging work. Almost 2,000 of the rough sleepers met and assessed by outreach teams working throughout London in 2016-17 were drug dependent, with heroin, crack cocaine and spice the dominant substances.
Outreach workers get to know homeless people very personally through nightly contact. Their resolve to help people off the streets is driven by their knowledge that sleeping rough can kill. Equally, an understanding of the impulses that lead people to beg means that outreach workers' responses to the tossing of coins into a proffered cup ranges from bafflement and resignation to outright anger. The facts speak for themselves. On occasions when the police arrest people for persistent begging, more than 70 per cent routinely test positive for crack or heroin.
Many homelessness charities, including Thames Reach, have supported campaigns asking the public not to give to people begging. Instead, we have encouraged donations to be made to local charities or, where a person is believed to be sleeping rough, for a referral to be made to the StreetLink website so that the person can be assisted by an outreach team. These are primarily public awareness campaigns.
Yet the public’s propensity to give money to people begging seems undiminished. Too often, we witness situations where former rough sleepers are making progress in tackling an addiction, but are sadly overwhelmed by the temptation to return to the street to beg for drug money. It is perverse that as Christmas approaches and the largesse of the public swells, we must be especially vigilant because of the increased risk of overdoses among people begging on our streets. When we say to the public, “your kindness can kill”, we mean it.
Recently the New Statesman website ran an article entitled “Why you should give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people”. The glib nihilism of this piece, which singled out Thames Reach for criticism, was shocking, encouraging the kind of mindless giving that works so powerfully against the efforts of outreach workers. Its casual bleakness was best illustrated by the approval given to the sentiment, spoken by the founder of User Voice, a charity staffed by former addicts, that “if your money funds the final hit, accept the person would rather be dead “.
And then an additional, bitter layer was added to our shock at the callousness of the article. A distraught colleague contacted me because she recognised the young man in the picture accompanying the on-line article, the image showing him sitting on the pavement holding a cup, arm stretched out in supplication. He was someone she had supported and who had successfully stopped using heroin and settled into a flat but who started using again, overdosed and died. To quote her directly: ‘He would be mortified as he relapsed for such a short amount of time before his death after being in recovery for years. He wasn’t street homeless either, he died in his own council flat of an overdose, so this article is terribly ironic’. To its credit, New Statesman rapidly removed the picture.
To witness the death of people through overdoses, knowing they have bought the drugs primarily with money raised through begging, as we have at Thames Reach, is devastating for our staff. Indeed, the article was a kick in the teeth for all the committed teams from homelessness charities working directly with street homeless men and women who will not acquiesce to the inhuman fatalism which assumes there is some kind of death-wish gripping people begging to buy drugs.