Debate: The Housing Minister says we shouldn't give food or cash to the homeless. Is he right?


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The Independent Online


What's going on?

Giving money or food to a homeless person won’t do them any good, the Housing Minister has said, as welfare charities launch a “homelessness hotline” billed by the Government as an alternative to hand-outs.

StreetLink is a new national helpline for members of the public concerned about a rough sleeper in their area. Backed by 500 homelessness charities, operators will pass on information about a homeless person’s location and circumstances to support services in their area, which will then offer them targeted help.

The scheme, which has been trialled successfully in London, Liverpool and Manchester since last year, is backed by the Housing Minister Mark Prisk who urged people to offer “a hand-up, rather than a handout”.

Is this a sensible approach to tackling the increase in homelessness - or a cruel one? Fundamentally, should you give money to the homeless?

Case for: Human to sympathise

Fine, there are strong arguments that giving homeless people food and money will only keep them living on cold city streets - not help them into a warmer, better life. But, by setting off direct personal donations against calling the number of his "homelessness hotline", Housing Minister Mark Prisk has created an unnecessary and cruel divide. Yes, passersby should call that number: but they should, at the same time, not be put off passing on small gifts, if only since personal exchanges like this make society seem less atomised (for both parties) and give a tiny hit of human pleasure (again, for both sides).

Case against: Making things worse

What homeless people need is help, not sympathy. That means, first and foremost, don't do anything to make their situation worse. And that in turn means don't give them an incentive to beg on the street when what they need is either professional help, or shelter, or the beginnings of self-reliance. To give homeless people money is the worst kind of practical error: something that is done with all the right intentions, but which ultimately increases harm, and consistently so.