I have just listened to an article on the radio about homelessness. The guest was explaining why he felt it was good to give money to people who are begging. It reminded me of a blog post that I wrote in March
I was very upset that a person I have known for years was having his disability benefits stopped. He wasn’t homeless, but I was worried that he might have ended up so.
At around the same time, I met a lady with mental health problems who was vulnerably housed. She asked to borrow my phone and explained her situation to me. At that point, she was sofa surfing but knew that she would be homeless very soon if housing couldn’t be found.
She ended up living in a tent for months.
Over the winter.
I saw her go from a member of society that you wouldn’t notice in the street, to a grubby member of an underclass, sitting on the floor, begging. I lent her my phone a few times. As the weather got colder, I gave her money but I couldn’t decide whether it was wise. The general advice is not to give money to homeless beggars (in case they spend it on drink or drugs), but it seems inhumane. How else would she eat? I am allowed to chose how to spend my money, why isn’t a beggar? I give the money to them — then it becomes their money. I can’t stipulate how another adult spends their money!
She might buy alcohol with the money. She might buy drugs with the money. Or she might buy some chips. It isn’t up to me. She is an adult and can decide how to spend her money. On a cold night I will sometimes have an alcoholic drink, what right do I have to stop other people from doing the same? In her shoes, I would definitely have a few vices!
I thought about buying food or drinks and giving them to her, and that seemed wrong. If four kind people buy her hot drinks in one 10 minute period she would have more coffee that she could drink, and no food! And we are taking away her right to chose. I would buy her tea, because (in my opinion) it is much nicer than coffee. But she might not like it. The only way to be sure that I was helping was to either ask her what she needed or give her money. And giving her money seemed to be the most adult solution. That was the point I was making in my blog post.
I have thought about it a lot since then and decided that I would continue giving to the homeless (or very poor) people that I know. I make a point of talking, too. Not just giving cash. I will talk about where I am going or what I am up to and ask them how they are doing. I try to make it a chat that also involves me giving the person some money, rather than just giving cash. And I try to keep it a two-way conversation — not just about the problems the other person has. That seems humane. A human connection, conversation and a bit of sympathy. Not just chucking cash at a problem and hoping it goes away.
I’m glad I did.
I spoke to the lady yesterday, and she has been housed. She is still very poor, but she has a start, now. She needs money for utilities to heat the water, then she can shower and cook for herself. She can look like a member of society again. She can leave the homeless underclass behind her.
It will take time. She had mental health problems before she was homeless — now she has more mental health problems and an array of physical health problems. But at least she has an address. And safety, security, and warmth.
I honestly believe that she wouldn’t be here now if people hadn’t supported her. Local businesses helped her out, checking on her, providing her with some food, a few people gave her money for food and a charity gave her a tent. Without that she would have had nothing.
Would I feel like this if she had spent the money I gave her on alcohol or drugs?
Developing a dependency on alcohol or drugs would have made it much harder for her to keep a home and join in with society — I would probably be writing a very different article! But that wouldn’t change my actions. She has the choice over food/alcohol/drugs. Whatever she spent the money on, it would still have helped her through the night. She would have had the human connection of the conversation — at a time when everyone else ignored her. She would have known that someone cared. Even if she had died from the drugs, she would have died knowing someone cared.
As it was, I think she spent the money I gave her on food. And it kept her alive until the authorities could find her a house.
I still feel dismayed and embarrassed that we have so many homeless people in the UK. But I also feel glad and proud that we have one less — and that I had a very small part to play in that.
Giving money to people who are begging is difficult. It feels embarrassing, it drives home how much we have and how little the other person has. It is easier to tell ourselves that is the persons own fault. They made the wrong choices. They are unhelpable. It is best to give to a homeless charity and pretend the person isn’t there.
Interacting with them, helping them, chatting to them is that harder path to take but ultimately helps everyone.