Death by Spare Change?
“Please Don’t Contribute to a Person’s Death” is the message of a poster campaign in the London borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The ‘Alternative Giving’ campaign began on August 10th with posters featuring an image of a pair of hands empty and outstretched, the request not to shorten someone’s life superimposed over them. Below the picture is a statement saying many people who beg on the streets are not homeless and are more likely to spend the money on drugs or alcohol. The poster also directs you to a government webpage telling you how to report a rough sleeper to an outreach team and charities you can donate to.
The poster has received scorn on social media. Detractors have called the poster ‘idiotic’ and ‘disgusting’. These remarks could have been expressing disdain for the language in the poster. Nick Paget-Brown, leader of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has admitted in a blog that the posters are “hard-hitting” and “may come as a bit of a shock”. But people who give their spare change to someone begging probably think they’re just helping someone out in their own small way. Who’s to judge what the person on the street does with the money they’re given? This raises the question; should we be discouraging giving money to people who beg, or is it a matter of personal choice?
The New Hope position on this matter is clear. New Hope doesn’t encourage giving money to people who beg. This is for the reasons stated on the poster: the person begging might not be homeless, and they might be suffering from drug or alcohol addiction. When you see someone begging you might assume they’re homeless, but you can’t really tell this by looking at someone. You might know someone who is or has been homeless without realising. Similarly, people who beg might be doing so to make money. Whether or not they’re homeless, they might be struggling with addiction. People who are homeless or in extreme poverty might be in this position partially because addiction has taken over their lives, or they might become addicted due to the stress of homelessness and contact with other addicts. Either way, for someone facing the disease of addiction, money can be too much of a temptation. Not because they enjoy drugs or alcohol, but because these things numb the pain that they constantly feel and offer them a temporary escape from their situation.
This doesn’t mean that you should assume someone begging has a home or is addicted to drugs. Neither does it mean that you should walk away and do nothing. People who are homeless need both short term and long term help. In the short term, you can offer them food or blankets, whatever they need, rather than giving them money. Many restaurants and shops won’t serve people who are or look homeless, so buying these things for them can help to save lives in the immediate future. In the long term, they need help from charities and hostels, as well as accommodation and social care from the government.
My criticism of the poster isn’t about what it says, but about what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that you can give food or other items to people who beg rather than money. Neither the poster nor the council website make clear the council’s position on this. The council does say that you can give to charity, but it doesn’t make clear what they are doing to get accommodation and social care for people who are homeless. The danger of this is that the campaign might leave people with the feeling that they just need to give some money to charity and do nothing else. Money alone won’t solve the complex phenomenon of homelessness.
In October 2014, the charity Crisis published an undercover study into 8 local authorities across England. 87 single people who were homeless were visited and 50 of those people were found to have received little or no help from their local authorities. This is, as the charity rightly says, “nothing short of a scandal”. It shows just how important understanding the immediate and longer term needs of those facing homelessness is. Faced with a homelessness crisis, we shouldn’t feel like there’s nothing we can do but give a few coins now and again. There’s so much that we can do to help the people who need that help the most. Helping them directly through informed and responsible giving, campaigning for their right to accommodation and fair treatment, and donating to charities are the things we should be focussing on. Someone should put that on a poster.