This week I was at a church in central London, talking with the minister when a man came to the door asking for help.
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?
11 thoughts on “Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging”
Sorry, Jon, but I am with the Pope on this one. In fact, I am with the New York Times as well. And with the Bible, Jesus, and therefore God too.
I, of course, have shared that opinion with you before, so rehashing it all here is likely pointless. MUCH of my blog is dedicated to arguing specifically against your point here. I am sure new thinking might be added to my case, but really, I think it would only be icing on the cake. The real thrust of my case is that it obeys God. I can site Scripture for it, which outweighs even the Pope, in my estimation (the glass of wine thingy might coincide with the bit in Proverbs 31).
I see a lot of “wisdom” in your case, alright. It’s not like I am blind to it. But you are asserting giving will not help and in fact will do harm. That is not a given, actually. And if it were, then Jesus is wrong to be in the saving business.
On the other hand, trusting Jesus, even when it appears foolish, seems like an important notion. This is not the full thrust of my case, but you really must illuminate for me how it is wrong before I will entertain yours as truly wise in God’s economy.
All this said, I will do you the same favor you afford the Pope. I respect and honor your work and care for the poor even though I disagree profoundly with you in some aspects of it.
Thanks Mr X. I appreciate you disagreeing with me. I would fully encourage you to do a piece for this blog titles ‘why Jon Kuhrt is wrong on begging’ if you were prepared to write it under your real name!
I realise that some key scriptures do tell us to give. But the over-riding injunction is to love our neighbour and that’s where I am coming from. I do believe in giving but just not cash but with other things like time and energy which really can help. I believe that Jesus did this – he gave people what they needed not just what they wanted. I hope, as well as ‘wisdom’ you recognise compassion and a desire to truly help people in what I write. That’s my motivation – not to discourage generosity but to encourage a deeper form of engagement which displays the costly grace of God. Bless you brother and thanks for reading!
I have been following you long enough that by now, I think and hope, you know you have my respect. I do not question your heart for the poor.
You and I have also discussed the criteria for submitting posts on your blog, and it is clear that I don’t meet them. However, if you have interest in my position, I invite you to search my blog. My position is held forth in several posts really. Perhaps not are truly comprehensive, but I will let them do my talking for me.
Perhaps my most pointed post on the issue, if you or any readers here care to look it over, can be found at this link:
I hope that will be sufficient. If not, leave a comment and I will try to address the matter further.
Thank you, Jon.
I will have a read…thanks
Very good points Jon. I agree with your viewpoint. If the man referenced in the story really needed a place to stay the minister could have offered to make arrangements at a local hotel for the night. My guess is that the person looking for a handout would have refused such an offer.
I often give money to beggars and will continue to do so. Our local authority recently had a campaign to encourage people not to give money to beggars and instead donate it to them to help the homeless. The same LA who routinely fails to accept homelessness applications for people it has a duty to house, has year on year made cuts to local housing provision whilst paying fairly large salaries to commissioners and heads of housing etc. They argue that this is because beggars on the whole are not homeless and are actually drug addicts. I don’t doubt the truth in this but wonder why they don’t suggest people donate to local addiction services (who have also had drastic cuts). It is likely that people would not donate to drug services as there is less sympathy in society for addiction as there is for homelessness hence why addicts say they are homeless as opposed to being honest about what they need the money for. This is in itself is problematic that our society views addiction as some kind of moral failure and continues to criminalise drug users despite the fact that the so called war on drugs has been a complete and utter failure but that’s a whole other but fully connected debate.
I think if you are suggesting that we as a society should cut off the means of obtaining drugs for addicts by not giving them money we better as a society have the means to provide therapeutic environments for those addicts to recover. As a study in Scotland recently showed (like we actually needed a study to tell us) the vast majority of addicts have suffered complex childhood trauma if as a society you don’t have the means to offer real therapeutic treatment then cutting off their supply of drugs is perhaps in my view unethical. Of course their is not adequate treatment programs for addicts unless you count substitute prescribing which it is debatable how successful that is. This means addicts need to find other ways to make money to get drugs, these will often be crime or sex work. Now I guess if the aim is to have addicts not bothering you for money or being less visible on our high streets then this would achieve those ends. It would mean even more addicts than present would be in prisons that do very little to treat addiction. In my opinion if you want to help addicts the best way to do this has to be to push for more better resources addiction services. Of course the argument would be made that there isn’t the funds however if we stopped spending money on locking up addicts and enforcing a failed policy of prohibition there would be plenty of funds.
A little over 15 years ago I was street homeless in north London, I was a beggar and for many years had been addicted to heroin, crack cocaine and alcohol. I believe begging helped me get into recovery. For many years I had stolen (mainly shoplifting) to get my drugs. This way of life meant that I had very little contact with I guess what you would call average members of society. My contact was with other addicts, police and shop detectives, prison officers and other inmates (mainly addicts) this kept me isolated from the views and values of society and also the love in society. This in turn allowed me to stay firmly trapped in the denial of addiction. As my addiction progressed for several reasons I lost the ability to steal and had to beg to make money.
Now I come from a fiercely proud working class background where begging is not acceptable in any form. My mum kicked my ass for doing ‘penny for the guy’. So begging filled me with a deep sense of shame. What you can’t avoid when begging is interactions with members society. Those interactions were as varied as society itself sometimes I was shown incredible acts of kindness, often I was ignored, often I was verbally abused, sometimes I was physically abused I was spat on and even pissed on.
Each one of those interactions particularly the ones where I was shown love served as a mirror for me reflecting how bad things were, how far removed from society I had become and how far away from being the person I was meant to be I had become. The sense of shame grew and grew into a sense of desperation.
Now often in order for an addict to get recovery several elements have to magically align. As I see it these elements are the opportunity, the environment, encouragement and support and last but not least the desperation to embrace the opportunity. I believe if I hadn’t been a beggar I would not have been desperate enough to embrace my chance. If no one had given me money I wouldn’t have been a beggar for long and in turn may have missed that gift of desperation.
I will continue to give money to beggars when I can I will also give them my time and talk to them about recovery opportunities.
Just my view
Totally agree with this thread. I do not just hand money out Willy nilly as I don’t want to be manipulated by gangs operating as beggars masquerading as impoverished people. But if I see a vulnerable individual I recognise that sometimes what they need it money. And perhaps it is a case of money for drugs. I came across a sick addict in Sainsbury’s Carpark one day. He was clearly in withdrawal, he was covered in blood from injecting, he was thin and dirty, he was homeless and he was manipulative. He needed money for a hit. It was snowing and freezing cold. He needed a kindness and what he also needed that day was heroin. There was no immediate treatment facility or place for him to turn up to. We don’t have an old style Lexington Hospital situation where addicts can go anymore in London or the UK. They have closed it all down and reduced services to ground zero as they keep saying there is no money despite taxes rising and rising. Where does all the VAT I pay from my business go?
I spoke with this guy for some time fro him to admit he was an addict gave him a tenner to straighten himself out and told him about the location of the local NA meeting. Now due to Covid Narcotics Anonymous meetings are only on zoom atm so this is a separate situation for homeless addicts or even homes ones. It’s not about the money. Giving money to an addict will not be enough to keep them using anyway. There are plenty of other situations which will ensure the addict has a rock bottom and no amount of money given on the street could continue to feed an addicts habit. Nothing is black and white. Whilst I understand the idea of tough love I’m with Pope Francis on this one. What do we really understand anyway? Let’s make sure though that we give only to those in genuine need and don’t simply become Marks for gangs.
Great piece and enjoyed reading the comments too…
I think what I’ve taken away so far from this debate is that giving money is easy. To do what is truly right is much harder.
Thanks Jon, I’m continuing to chew over the subject and wrestle with my own choices as I walk past… or stop.
John k I begged on the streets for many years because of my addictions to alcohol and gambling i now am sorry for all the people i to be truthful scamed just to feed my addictions old ladies who i could tell had nothing thier selfs giving me what could have been thier last pound when at the time due to a good pension iwas probably bringing in twice as much as them if you want to help the homeless give to a reputable homeless charity or give your time to volunteer at a homeless shelter or even take a moment to talk to them but please dont give beggars money for tea any beggar in any town knows where to go for free food and drinks there are a lot of orgs out there to help