Every person who asks me for money on the street has a different story, but they’re all the same. I need money to get into the shelter. It costs £14. Or £16. Or £20. It’s always a different number. I know the next question that’s coming, if I am honest and say I have no money I can really spare. Well, I have £12. Can I swap it for a twenty pound note? I rummage, and produce a crumpled fiver from the bottom of my wallet. I tell her, I have less than ten pence in my bank at the moment. This is all I have. Her face falls. She wanders off, clutching the note, to ask someone else.
Now, there aren’t enough homeless shelters in my city to match up with the number of prices I am ‘quoted’ for how much it will cost the individual in question to get in for the night. I have had personal experience of people – people who became very good friends of mine, who ate at my Christmas table – who begged for money on the pretence of saving it for shelter entry for the night. In the case of my now-ex (the friendship disintegrated for other reasons) friends, they were comfortably housed, and begging to feed their heroin addictions. That is not the case for everyone, or even the majority of people who I give money to in the street, but it is likely that in some cases, the person begging is not homeless, and/or that the money I give ‘fuels’ addiction (be it to illegal substances or to alcohol).
One lady, who I know fairly well, asked me for a pound a few months ago. As I gave it to her, she said to her boyfriend, “Okay, now I can get a tin… oh.” She looked back at me. “I shouldn’t have said that. Do you want it back?” She was – and still is, as far as I can see – so far into an addiction to alcohol that she was reduced to begging strangers for money so that she could drink. So that she could feel human. So that she could feel something. Or, perhaps, to feel nothing at all.
Sadly, at least in my city, there is little camaraderie among the homeless community. They are generally eager to downplay each other’s problems to the people trying to help. Talk to A about B, and you’re told that B has a comfy flat and an iPhone hidden away. Talk to B and you’ll be told A lies about being a domestic abuse survivor to garner sympathy so she can raise money to buy a bottle of vodka every night. Talk to C and he’ll tell you that A and B have both been in trouble for robbing old ladies.
Not all of it can be true. The truth of it seems to be that A, B, and C all realise that the money isn’t endless and they are fighting among themselves for what little they can get. If one of them can put you off the other two, then they ensure all of your money goes to them and not the others; they’re fighting for scraps with the very people with whom they have the most in common. I find it desperately sad that they feel the need to turn on one another rather than banding together to help each other out.
Every person who asks me for money on the street has a different story, but they’re all the same. A lot of them are genuinely collecting up cash to spend on a night in a shelter out of the cold, or to feed themselves for the day. Some of them are genuinely homeless and sleeping rough, but will spend the money on drugs or alcohol anyway. Some of them, I dare say, are housed to some degree of comfort or another, and are ‘scamming’ people for money to buy drugs with.
To be honest, I can’t tell the difference by looking at a person – nobody can separate the ‘scammers’ from the ‘genuine’ on sight alone – and frankly, I don’t care. Once I’ve given money to a person, I honestly couldn’t care less what they do with it – the moment it moves from my hand to theirs, it belongs to them as much as if they had earned it sitting in an office or laying bricks.
The mindset that a person can do as they please with the money given to them doesn’t just make sense morally, but logically as well. If a person with an addiction needs £10 worth of drugs and manages to get together £10 by begging, they will eschew eating food in favour of drugs. An extra £2 (or however much) could be the difference between drugs alone, and drugs plus a sandwich. I’d rather an addict took drugs and ate as well, than took drugs and starved herself. In the words of an addict I spoke to, “No addict will choose food over drugs once the need is there.”
It doesn’t help anybody to infantilise people living in abject poverty, least of all the people themselves. For the longest time, I couldn’t fathom what the people doing the infantilising got out of it either. Then it dawned on me that it is, simply, that it helps them to feel superior. By telling a person who is begging “Use it for food, don’t buy drugs with it!” they get to feel smug.
They aren’t homeless or vulnerably housed. They aren’t addicts. They aren’t reduced to sitting in a cold, damp doorway, being spat on by strangers to whom their very existence is an affront, their last vestiges of self-esteem slipping away, asking people they don’t know for money.
And they would never be in that position, of course. Never mind that the difference between comfortable and homeless can be less than three month’s pay. They are so convinced that they will never be in that position because they are a better person, that they trot out inane instructions on what the person in receipt may spend their ‘gift’ upon.
I don’t regret the money I used to give to my addicted ex-friends, and I refused the alcoholic lady’s pound back. If I gift something to somebody, it shouldn’t come with provisos. A gift doesn’t come with strings attached. And a gift is exactly what it is when one gives money to a homeless person. To add a proviso is, essentially, to treat them like a child; to “pay them to be a good girl/boy”. I’d rather encourage adults to be adults, and to make their own decisions, than to presume for one moment that I know more about their life than they do themselves.
Hopefully, someone out there will have changed their mind after reading this, and will consider gifting to someone who begs on the street next time they are asked. That’s all I can ask for of you, readers – don’t ignore everyone on the basis that some might be lying, and consider the autonomy of the person to whom you are giving a gift – and it is a gift. Let your kindness be kindness unmarred by pseudo-parental finger wagging, and your generosity be generosity without restrictions.