Brother, can you spare a fiver?: Beggars pose problems that demand our attention

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The Independent Online
Here I am, looking good, feeling perky, on my way to the theatre. Good tickets, good show. Good company, dinner afterwards, then swanning home for a comfortable Sunday. A lot of money; but all well worth it. And there he is looking odd, feeling lousy, on his way to nowhere. Lousy doorway, lousy food. A bottle or two, maybe a smoke. A bleak night ahead. Bedding down with boxes and blankets, cold and hard. And not even a fiver for tomorrow.

What do I do? Mustn't be late. Time for a drink and a chat and then well seated, all in good time. Keep moving. Eyes straight ahead.

Blinkers on. Just a glimpse of something dark and fuzzy. Don't look. At all costs, don't think.

Then the dark becomes a lump. The lump a face. The face is his. Approaching. Here he is in front of me. He's talking. He's looking. He's waiting. Holding out his hand. This is a beggar, I say to myself. A Major beggar. He is in my way. He is intruding. How dare he?

The story is all too familiar. An everyday tale of city life. London at work - the meeting of young and old. Do I give him money or don't I? Why do I and why don't I? Will he be satisfied? Will I? Or will he demand more? And I retreat?

Endless questions - wearisome questions - that settle on whether or not I (and people like me) are all right; not whether or not he (and people like him) are all right. But the big questions, the difficult ones, have to be, above all else, about him. Who is he? What is he doing? Where is he from? Why is he here? What in God's name is it all about?

I give him a couple of quid and he shuffles off, and so do I. Aggrieved, scared, but not easy - not at all easy - in myself. Something is wrong, very wrong. Has what has happened, happened? Or can I pretend it hasn't? I move on and try to forget. But I can't. I stop. It has happened. And I go back. Just to see. What has happpened.

And what do I see? A human being. A young man. A frail boy aged anywhere between 13 and 18. He doesn't look well. He looks drawn, heavy eyed, pale, spots. He laughs occasionally but it's an angry sound. He grins mischievously but without joy. He lights up and kicks a tin. But there is no purpose.

He doesn't look like me - old, fat and besuited - and he doesn't behave like me. But we have met and we live in the same city. . .

The theatre beckons. I rush on. But the image and the feeling do not go away. His deprivation and my shame. And our disgrace.

I can't find out who he actually is. But I know enough about him. And what's more, I know what can be done.

Young people like him are not sitting and sleeping in the streets for fun. Some may be so hardened and despairing that they think that they are having a rave. A few may be so streetwise that it is as good a way of cadging a living as any. But for the most part the majority are lost and disconnected. They are on the run from something nasty or uncaring - and they are on the search for something wonderful, whatever is the opposite to what they have had.

And the fact of it all is that they have so very little. Anyone who, like me, has worked in children's services for years knows that this boy and an enormous number of others have been let down by their parents, their families, their communities and ultimately by their society, which is all of us.

This is not soft woolly talk nor another random attack on parents. It is fact. There are simply too many children who are neglected, abused, forgotten and maltreated. And the effects are serious. Above all the effects on their mental health are appalling. This is not to say they are rendered mentally ill. But they are not happy, they do not feel well, they lack confidence and they are not making the most of their talents and opportunities.

A lot of them are very scared and very resentful, and friendless. That's not healthy. Unless parents and neighbours like theirs are better supported earlier on in young people's lives, many more of them will flounder and some of them will end up on the street like this boy. The tragedy is that not enough adequate help is available at the right time.

This does not mean that there isn't the concern, the compassion, the skill, and the knowledge to help. What it does mean is that there simply isn't enough investment in the services that could make all the difference.

One look at the state of services for children with emotional and behavioural problems in London since the end of Inner London Education Authority four years ago shows an appalling decline and lack of co-ordination, with fewer support services, dismantling of tutorial classes and limited child-guidance provision. And the problem is nationwide.

Housing issues are tied up in all this, of course, and the withdrawal of entitlements to income support benefit for 16 to 18-year-olds who are not in full-time education or a Youth Training Scheme does little to help. The ones who are at risk simply do not have it in them to reach out for education or work.

Ultimately, it is an emotional issue. It is a matter of mental health.

So let's take another look at him in the doorway. No more averting the eyes. Cut the moralising. Attention must be paid. He doesn't have to be there. He and I don't have to meet this way.

Peter Wilson is the director of Young Minds, the National Association for Child and Family Mental Health.

(Photograph omitted)