Most people, however, react instinctively to each particular beggar. We don't react identically to every person at a party: some appeal to us and others do not. No surprise if the same is true of beggars. The violinist playing something obscure but classical gets my coin every time; but I never give money to women with babies or young children beside them, from a visceral horror at the notion of anyone under five spending hours in the grimy, foetid hell of an underground tunnel.
The people who seem to elicit the most negative response from the public in general, however, are young beggars. It may be to do with their youth, which allows people to impute to them health and strength and thus employability. It may be to do with their clothes, which are often bizarre or even alarming. It may be because people believe the money they give will be spent on drugs or cigarettes rather than something "proper", like food.
Whatever the reason, young beggars are particularly unlucky. I gave a coin to a bedraggled young woman at Liverpool Street station the other day, only to be embarrassed by tears of gratitude. "Nobody's looked at me for two hours," she said, "and you're the first person who's given me something all day."
About 56,000 young people in Britain have no permanent address. After leaving home, usually for good reasons, they may move into a squat, "doss down" on friends' floors, or spend as long as possible (they are not allowed to stay for more than a month) ata short-stay hostel for the homeless. Many are left on the street, sleeping rough.
The Children Act imposed upon councils a statutory duty to house homeless 16- and 17-year-olds. In spite of this, a report published last month by Char, the national homelessness charity, claims that councils say the homeless must have "additional problems:" to qualify for help. About 25 per cent fail to assess the young homeless people who approach them, while almost half offer no housing to those with drug or alcohol problems. Dear heavens, what more problems than homelessness and addiction does anyone need to qualify for help in this ruthless country that the Tories have built for us?
If the homeless are under 18, they do not qualify for Income Support, either. Let me spell out what this means. A 16- or 17-year-old who has left home, or been living in "care", has two choices: sell his or her body, or beg.
People are fond of saying, "Have they no self-respect? I would have died rather than beg for money!" But how are these supposedly feckless, idle, shiftless, unself-respecting young people supposed to find work, when they have no home, no money, not much
to eat, and few facilities for washing either themselves or their clothes?
"Let them work on a building site ... in Woolworth's ... anything!" you say? Talk to building firms, and they will tell you that they have little enough work for their present employees, and no facilities for training new apprentices, let alone the young
homeless. It is pie in the sky to believe that work is available if only they would get off their butts, stop cluttering up the streets, and go out and look for it. Work is hard to come by, especially for an unhappy, unqualified 17-year-old. V a cancies favour the well-qualified, well-washed and well-dressed.
New Horizon, founded by Lord Longford in 1967, is one of the oldest charities helping the young homeless. Yesterday, Bob Hoskins opened its new centre, strategically placed between Euston and Kings Cross stations, where so many arrive from the Midlands and north of England, naive, incorrigibly optimistic, and pitifully vulnerable.
In his pithy speech, Lord Longford pointed out that when figures were compiled in 1970, 43 per cent of the young people using the facilities of New Horizon had been "in care" (that grim euphemism). In 1994, that figure is 44 per cent. That's about the only figure that has remained constant. The numbers of young homeless have been rising since 1970, and are rising still.
I asked New Horizon's director, Julie Fitzgerald, what was the most serious issue to be dealt with. She said: "Some action must be taken to relieve the hopelessness in the minds of so many young people today. They have no work and thus no income to give them choices: what to buy, what to eat, how to spend their leisure time, where to go, how to live. And people living in substandard hostels or on the street become very damaged. That presents the Government and, ultimately, the country with grave and expensive long-term problems."
I spent last weekend in Budapest. Hungary is riven by economic problems, with high unemployment and 25 per cent inflation, yet I saw no homeless young people anywhere, although I travelled throughout the city by metro. If Hungary, with all its social andeconomic problems, can take care of its troubled young, why cannot out-of-recession, onwards and upwards Tory Britain?
New Horizon is at 68 Chalton Street, London NW1 1JR, 0171-388 5560.