Judging beggars is not helping them

In today’s edition of the Guardian there is an article by Dave Hill in the Comment is Free section titled Don’t give money to beggars – help them instead.

In this article Hill argues that you shouldn’t give money to people begging on the street because it harms them more than it helps them as they will probably spend it on drugs and alcohol. As far as Hill is concerned this is such an obvious argument that everyone agrees. He writes “Outreach workers know it.[That money given to beggars will mostly be used for drugs] The police know it. They are the ones who have to deal with the consequences, handling the harder cases, directing them to rehab, hoping not to have to fish a corpse out of a hostel’s bath.”

As I am a former outreach worker Hill apparently thinks he can speak for me. He isn’t completely wrong, of course, when he writes that money people get from others may be spent on drugs and alcohol. He is, however, wrong about almost everything else and I’d like to take this opportunity to respond.

1. People who give money to beggars are enabling the beggars’ drug habits.

Hill quotes Jeremy Swain, of the charity Thames Reach in saying people should stop giving money to beggars

“…because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs”.[ …] Denial and complacency among those who fund addiction the odd pound at a time can induce “hot waves of anger” in him.”

What kind of understanding of ‘addiction’ do Hill and Swain have? I have worked with various organizations that work with drug addicts and homeless people. One thing I can tell with certainty is that not one of the people I have met chose to be an addict out of laziness. Especially if you’re talking about people who are reduced to begging to feed their addiction you are way past the point where you’re just taking drugs because you don’t know what to do with all your spare change.

The claim that giving money to beggars will make their situation worse by enabling them to continue their drug habit is part of what I like to call ‘rock-bottom’ theory. I first encountered rock-bottom theory when I was with a charity working for drug addicted girls and young women engaged in sex work. The charity had an ‘acceptance based’ approach. This meant that our main goal was not to get our clients off the streets, but to support them in whatever decisions they made. Sure, we’d get someone a place in rehab and refer them to other services if they wanted us to, but we didn’t push. The theory behind acceptance based social work is that people who are stuck in a bad situation (for example being a homeless drug addicted prostitute at 19) need stabilizing before they can start thinking about changing their life for the better.

Not everyone agrees with that though. Critics of acceptance based approaches argue that if we make homelessness too comfy, then people will not be motivated to change their lives for the better. People have to hit rock bottom before they see the need to change.

I can assure you that someone who is begging in the streets for money to buy drugs is probably at rock bottom. I have yet to meet someone who begged and who was did not feel humiliated and degraded by the activity. Hill writes indignantly about the different ‘ploys’ beggars use. He writes angrily that “he learned long, long ago that junkies lie.” Of course junkies bloody lie. I’d lie too if the alternative was admitting to a total stranger that I am so screwed up I need to ask strangers for money so I can buy an escape from reality.

2. People who abuse drugs are less deserving of our compassion than others

Hill relies on the good old dichotomy of the deserving and the undeserving poor. This is clearest when he refers to Swain again. He writes that: “Swain doesn’t buy the line that austerity has spawned a new type of beggar, desperate only for food.”

Here the ‘Junkies’ are compared to people hit by austerity as two completely unconnected groups. One is in poverty because of their personal fault of addiction; the others guilelessly found themselves in need because of political circumstances. And this second group, according to Hill and Swain, doesn’t exist. Austerity, it seems, doesn’t cause extreme poverty after all. What a relief.

In reality, causes for homelessness are much more complicated than that. If you flick through the files at any homeless shelter or rehab clinic (as I have done) you will find stories of abuse, poverty, discrimination and, yes, bad decisions. Drug addiction doesn’t just happen. One thing that most people with addiction issues have in common is that they have a very good reason they can’t face reality without taking mind altering substances.

Giving money to a drug addict who is suffering from with-drawl so they can buy their next fix is a charitable act. Drug addicts don’t want drugs they need them. Begging is one of the less harmful ways they can get the money to feed their addiction. Those of us, who haven’t faced the hardships most addicts have faced, do not get to judge them.

3.  All people working in this area agree with Hill

As mentioned before, Hill cites Jeremy Swain from Thames Reach as a supporter of his position. Or rather, Hill claims that all professionals working with homeless people share his point of view. I think I have already shown that this is not true.

I don’t know much about Thames Reach. Judging from their homepage the support they offer homeless people in getting back on their feet is undoubtedly appreciated by many. I’m guessing that the people working for Thames Reach are probably kind hearted and empathic and have the best interests of the people they work with at heart. I don’t mean to delegitimize their work. What is remarkably lacking from the Thames Reach homepage, however, are anger and politics. I put ‘austerity’ into their search engine and it came up empty.

Some indications of why that may be emerge when you look at their website more closely. Thames Reach is funded primarily by the government. Cynics like me may might think that an appeal not to give money to beggars has little to do with what is good for beggars and more to do with what the government would like to see happen. And what they would like to happen is for their new gentrified wonderlands to be free of visible reminders that poverty exists. Both Swain and Hill should have a good hard think about whether they are really on the right side of this argument.

4. Giving to charity is a solution

Hill argues that people should give money to charities like Thames Reach instead of giving it to beggars directly. That way, he says, money can be more effectively used to help them.

Charity will not solve poverty. As I have argued elsewhere, charity is an activity those of us profiting from a system that is fundamentally unjust can engage in to make us feel better about ourselves. If Hill wants to really help beggars, he’ll have to start looking at why they are on the street in the first place. He’ll have to look further than one charity whose main goal, it seems, is to get visibly poor people off the streets of London because they are bothering people like him.

 

Being approached by beggars is awkward, especially if you’re just trying to enjoy your £ 4  Grande Mocha Latte while deciding which anti-capitalist Banksy print to buy for your  new apartment in Camden. It becomes less awkward if we somehow manage to blame beggars for their own misfortune because this then enables us to feel less bad about ourselves. What Hill fails to recognize is that just because something makes us feel less guilty, that doesn’t make it right.

 

Comments

  • Steve Gold

    I guess having refused ‘help’ from the authorities and charities the only thing left to bring them under control is to starve them into submission

  • Lizzie

    So great to read something so compassionate about this issue, thank you. I think that anyone who can’t envisage a situation where they themselves might have been just a few steps away from being homeless, from developing a drug problem or finding themselves in poverty is either just incredibly fortunate or lacks imagination.

  • Jennifer

    What an amazing article! I gave 2 homeless guys £10 each yesterday, but a few minutes after I felt guilty thinking ‘what if they use it to overdose on drugs and die!’. So I searched google for reassurance but came across Hills article and felt even worse! Thankfully I then read your article, and now I feel like I’ve done a good deed. Even if they did decide to buy drugs, it’s whatever makes then happy! I’ve heard of the homeless spending cash on a nice place to sleep for the night, so whose to say that’s not what they did.

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