For many people living or working in large cities, being asked for money is an everyday experience. It can often cause feelings of distress, guilt and confusion. What is the best way to respond to someone asking you for money? In 20 years of working with homeless people, it is by far the most common question I have been asked in relation to my work.
It is a sensitive subject. I want to avoid the polarization which often occurs between what is seen as compassion on one hand and cynicism on the other. As this article will make clear, I do not agree with giving money to people begging, but I take this view because I don’t believe it actually helps them. I am not advocating harshness but rather a compassionate realism about the nature of the problems which surround those who beg.
‘Give to anyone who asks’?
For many people of faith, their beliefs can add a further layer of complexity to this issue. After all, Jesus’ said ‘Give to anyone who asks you’ (Luke 6:30). And Jewish Scriptures state ‘If anyone is poor…do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them.’ (Deuteronomy 15:7). And the Quran says ‘You shall give the due alms to the relatives, the needy, the poor, and the travelling alien’ (17:26-29).
As a Christian, I believe that the overriding imperative is to love our neighbour and to be especially concerned for those in need. But as I have seen over many years, with many hundreds of people, giving money to someone begging is not showing them love. And it certainly does not address their needs.
Points to consider
Firstly, it is important to remember that the issue of homelessness and begging are related but are not the same. Many of those who beg are not homeless, and majority of homeless people do not beg.
Secondly, the link between begging and alcohol and drug misuse is well-proven. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Figures from the Metropolitan Police show that between 70 and 80% of those arrested for begging tested positive for Class A drugs. Most recently, in autumn 2013, every single one of 40 people arrested in Birmingham failed a drug test.
Thirdly, we need to recognize the untruthful manipulation at work in the exchange between someone begging and a potential donor. Often the scenario presented is designed to place maximum emotional pressure on the hearer to do what is being asked; e.g. that money is needed to pay for a hostel bed, to get a hot meal or travel money to see an ill child. Hostels and shelters for homeless people do not charge per night in this way. In my experience, the vast majority of the other scenarios presented are simply not true.
Fourthly, success in gaining money through begging undermines the positive work going on. I used to manage a hostel in Soho with homeless young people who could make very large sums of money from people leaving the pubs and night clubs around Old Compton Street. Often they would use the duvets we had given them as props to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough and we fought a losing battle in drawing these vulnerable young people away from the instant cash they could get from begging. Despite the stories they told about needing it for food, virtually all of it would be spent on drugs.
Allowing untruthful and manipulative behaviour to succeed in eliciting cash helps nobody. In fact it further imprisons the person in a world of deceit. In Thames Reach’s phrase, it can literally be ‘killing with kindness’.
Some of the best conversations I have had with people begging have been when they are clear that I will not give them money and we can talk openly without the false pretense. I had a long conversation with a man at Clapham Junction after he unsuccessfully begged from me. At the end of our chat, I explained that I often speak to churches about these issues and asked him if he thought people should ever give to people begging. He replied: ‘Never. I tell you it all goes on heroin and crack.’
As human as possible
One of the primary needs of homeless and vulnerable people is healthy, positive relationships, built on truth and honesty. And whilst we can’t have meaningful relationships with everyone we only meet briefly, we can seek to be as human as possible in all the encounters we have.
People who beg are not intrinsically bad people and we should avoid any language or tone which can appear harsh, cynical or dismissive. None of these approaches will help – most of them already feel bad enough about themselves and their situation. What we have to do is understand more fully the powerful and warping effect of addiction to drink or drugs has on people.
How should we respond?
So to answer the title of this article, I would recommend the following:
- When someone begs from you, look them in the eye when you respond and speak as confidently as you can.
- If you have time, stop and talk with them. Ask them their first name and share yours.
- If you have the time and money, offer to buy them a cup of tea, or a sandwich or pasty.
- Do some work to find out what drop-in centres, charities or churches are open for homeless or vulnerable people in the area where you live or work. Knowing what is available allows you to ask the person if they know about these and whether they have used them. At the church where I work we have a list ready to give to people with information about opening times and what is available.
- If you are worried about the vulnerability of someone sleeping rough then contact Street Link on 0300 500 0914 to inform them. This is a coordinated phone line to help inform the Outreach teams who work on the streets to help homeless people.
All of my experience and reflection on this issue makes me conclude that we should not give cash to people who beg. But we should never be judgmental or forget to treat them as humans.
It is often easier to give someone a few quid than give 10 minutes of our time. But if we are prepared to talk and to give something of ourselves, you never know what difference it could make.
You can listen to me discussing this issue on the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Beyond Belief’ on Begging. The programme also features my friend, and former rough sleeper, Chris Ward who shares his own testimony. (Chris’s section is at 12.42)