Church-based activists seeking to serve the homeless have been criticised as naive do-gooders by their state-funded counterparts. JON KUHRT argues that the complex realities of street life require Christians to temper grace with the tough love of truth.
Just over ten years ago I was the manager of a sixty-bed cold weather shelter for young homeless people in Soho in central London. The drawbacks of the location quickly became evident as it gave a base which almost encouraged many of our young residents to develop their skills in begging, selling sex and shoplifting. After a few days of opening we would see the residents who had just moved into the shelter begging right outside the hostel and using our duvets to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough. We used to overhear residents telling stories of their difficulties about ‘not being able to afford any of the hostels round here’ and that ‘no one would help them’ to people who stopped to talk with them. Often the passers-by listened with real concern to the story they were told and would hand over cash to the residents. The only people who really benefitted from this exchange were Soho’s many crack and heroin dealers.
The ease of getting money through begging was not a neutral factor – it undermined the positive work we were trying to do. I remember vividly the response of one honest young person who we were urging to stay in one evening and get involved in an event we had organised. As he was leaving he turned and said to me “I’ll tell you what – if you get members of the public to walk through the hostel lounge and drop fivers and pound coins in my lap – then I’ll stay in”.
These scenarios were just a snapshot of the tragicomic scenarios that occur within the largely hidden world of homelessness. It displays the complexity of compassion and how good intentions of generous people really can be destructive rather than helpful. This was not a situation where the ends justified the means – where the young people could almost be praised for their shrewd thinking. No, in reality this actually bred further cynicism and depression in those young people because many were ashamed of what they were doing – they knew they were profiting from the naivety and kindness of others.
There is no doubt that many members of the public were trying to help these young people – but what they were doing was not actually helping them. They were seeking to show grace but the problem was one of truth – because the young people were actually presenting a false picture of their situation. They presented a case that the money would go towards food or a hostel bed – when actually it was spent on drugs. It was not that they did not have high levels of need – in fact almost all of them were profoundly damaged and disadvantaged young people who needed a high degree of support and help. But out on the street they could easily receive the last thing they needed – an incentive to remain in the downward spiral of addiction and helplessness.
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