He explained that he was not from London but his wife had just been discharged from UCH (a London hospital) following an emergency operation. He said they had nowhere to stay and he didn’t have any money to pay for a hotel. He was asking for cash to help them out.
He said that he was due to be paid the next day, so would return and pay the money back in the morning. He earnestly added that both he and his wife are Christians so ‘they knew the church would help them’.
He was convincing and in many ways his story was powerful and moving. There was just one issue.
Both of us were 99.9% sure that he was not telling us the truth.
Wisdom from experience
Many people living in busy cities are used to hearing such scenarios. I lived in Kings Cross for five years, just around the corner from where the main distribution centre for The Big Issue magazine used to be. It was virtually impossible to walk out of my flat without being being asked for cash.
In the situation this week, the minister kindly and calmly explained the places he could go for help. She did not judge, dismiss or treat him harshly. But she responded to the request with the wisdom that comes from her daily experience. She knew how unlikely it was that any money given would be used for the purpose being presented. On hearing this, the man walked off in search of someone else to try his story.
Giving is ‘always right’
In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked about how we should respond to people begging. He said that giving to someone in need ‘is always right’. When asked about if the person will spend it on alcohol, the Pope replies:
‘If a glass of wine is the only happiness that he has in his life, that’s OK. Instead ask yourself what you do on the sly? What happiness do you seek in secret?’
The New York Times said the Pope had provided “a concrete, permanently useful prescription” which is “scripturally sound” and “startlingly simple” and which will help all city dwellers with how to respond to people begging: Give them the money and don’t worry about it.
I greatly admire Pope Francis and find his humility and compassion inspiring. But I strongly disagree with this advice. My core reason is because all my experience tells me that giving money to people begging does not actually help them. Basically, it is not showing them love.
It sounds kind to tell people to give money to anyone who asks, but we do not have the luxury of such simplistic approaches. We should not be cynical or harsh toward those begging, but we need to have a compassionate realism about the nature of their problems.
People begging are not intrinsically bad people and almost always have genuine needs. But handing over cash to them simply does not meet those needs effectively. The homeless charity Thames Reach estimate that 80% of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Rather than helping, handing over cash can actually be killing with kindness.
Friends and family
My professional work is with homeless people, but serious drug and alcohol addictions have also affected close friends and members of my family. Tragically, addictions have contributed the death of people I love, taken far too early.
A key thing to remember is that each person begging or approaching us for money is a precious human being of infinite worth. They are far, far more than an awkward situation to be managed well. Our focus needs to be on them, not us. We need the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.
Over the last 20 years I have spoken with hundreds of people who are currently or formerly involved in begging. My articles on this issue have been read by over 50,000 people on this blog alone. I am yet to hear anyone say that the money they have received through begging has been a positive part of recovery journey. But I have experienced and witnessed countless scenarios where money gained through begging is part of the problem.
Addictions which kill
The Pope’s references to ‘a glass of wine’ are comically inappropriate for the kind of alcohol misuse which is common for many people who beg. Many of the alcoholics that I have worked with can be drinking up to 9 or 10 cans of super-strength lager or cider (9% proof) a day. Additional cash often just enables them to buy spirits.
Money given to people begging does not enable them a celebratory tipple: it is generally feeding an addiction which is literally killing them.
The complexity of compassion
I know that the Pope intends to set an example of kindness, justice and grace. But more and more money given to people begging will not result in a more just world. We need to go upstream and invest in preventing poverty and family breakdown. We need to support programmes which help people travel the hard road of recovery. And of course we need agencies which provide emergency help for people on the streets.
We can long for simple answers, but compassion is complex. To be transformative, our efforts to show grace must always be accompanied by a concern for truth. Helping someone in need is ‘always right’ but only if it is done in a way which actually helps them.
If you are left thinking how should we respond to people begging, see this brief article which gives specific practical steps on what you can do: How should we respond to people begging?
West London Mission works with people affected by homelessness and addictions