A beggar in Edinburgh city centre. Most local authorities discourage people from giving money to those on the street, and instead advise donating to homeless charities
A beggar in Edinburgh city centre. Most local authorities discourage people from giving money to those on the street, and instead advise donating to homeless charities

Is begging just a scam, or a lifeline for those most in need?

David Barnett asks whether it is ethical to give money to street beggars. Will they only spend it on booze as the cliché suggests – and if so should that even matter? 

David Barnett
Monday 31 October 2016 14:13
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You are walking through the town or city centre where you live when you see a figure huddled under a blanket in a doorway, eyes downcast, an empty disposable coffee cup at their feet containing a smattering of small change. What do you do? Avert your gaze and briskly pick up the pace? Or maybe fumble in your purse or pocket for a pound coin to drop into the cup?

The smart money says you should keep your cash where it is. And that’s not just the harrumphing of Middle Englanders who read with satisfaction headlines – all genuine ones from the UK press – such as “Half of all beggars on streets of British city own their own home”, “Street beggar makes £500 a day” and “Police in beggars crackdown after claims one urinated in front of pupils”.

Indeed, not only do most local authorities and police forces actively campaign against giving money to street beggars, but the vast majority of charities and organisations dealing with the homeless adopt the same approach.

Sometimes, though, they can be a little overzealous. Last month the Advertising Standards Authority reprimanded Nottingham City Council for a poster campaign over the summer that saw five different notices pasted up around the city suggesting that beggars were frauds, junkies and drunks.

The ASA upheld complaints on four of the five ads, saying they “reinforced negative stereotypes” and “portrayed all beggars as disingenuous and undeserving individuals that would use direct donations for irresponsible means”.

To be fair to Nottingham City Council, they weren’t maliciously targeting beggars for no reason. The ASA accepted that the city had an issue with “aggressive begging”, and that the point of the campaign was to funnel well-meaning donations into reputable charities who work with the homeless.

A day in the life of Big Issue vendor 433

But at the heart of this row is the nub of the whole debate about whether we should hand over our cash to people on the streets. Ignoring the perennial urban myths about beggars doing a shift outside Boots for eight hours and then jumping into their BMW parked round the corner and heading back to their mansions to count their takings, the fear is that when your neighbourhood vagrant has amassed enough shiny pound coins from bleeding heart liberals like you, they’re just going to go and blow it all on drugs and booze.

And perhaps the possibly rather controversial response to that is… so what?

Before we unpack that a bit, let’s hear from Thames Reach, a London-based charity which works with homeless and vulnerable people in the capital and has the ambitious goal of ending homelessness through trying to get the people it helps into accommodation. They are in no doubt why begging exists: “Overwhelming evidence shows that people who beg on the streets of England do so in order to buy hard drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, and super-strength alcoholic beers and ciders. These highly addictive drugs cause an extreme deterioration in people’s health and even death.”

Where is this overwhelming evidence from? “Firstly, Thames Reach’s outreach teams including its London Street Rescue service, who are out and about on the streets of the capital working with London’s homeless 365 days of the year. They estimate that 80 per cent of people begging do so to support a drug habit.

“Secondly, when the Metropolitan Police did some drug testing of people arrested for begging, the figures indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

“In a police crackdown in Birmingham on begging in autumn 2013, every single one of the 40 people arrested failed a drug test.”

Thames Reach isn’t alone in this. Here’s Manchester-based Change4Good: “Unfortunately, through our own work and overwhelming evidence it has been indicated that a large number of those who beg on the street do so in order to fund their drug habit, namely crack cocaine and heroin. These highly corrosive and addictive narcotics cause serious problems to their health when continually abused, including amputation of limbs, and can lead to death.”

And here’s Stephen Bell, the chief executive of Newcastle charity Changing Lives, speaking at the launch late last year of a campaign in the city to dissuade people from giving to beggars: “We are amazed by the generosity of people in Newcastle in giving to people who seem to be in need. But we know that many people who are begging have accommodation, and the money will often be used to buy drugs or alcohol, not food or shelter. There are better ways to help people who are genuinely homeless, including volunteering or donating money to one of the homelessness charities in the city.”

The last sentence is the crux of the whole issue. The prevailing wisdom is that if you want to help the homeless you’re better doing it through one of the charities who work with them directly – in that way you know you’re not just fuelling someone’s addiction.

Here’s an anecdote for you, from 20-odd years ago. I am in, I think, Manchester, and stop to toss a handful of change into a small cardboard box set out by a beggar. “Don’t spend it all on Special Brew!” I quip frivolously. He looks at me. “I probably will. It’ll be the only thing that’ll get me through the night.”

It was a brief exchange, but one I never forgot. I still wrestle with the conundrum. Addiction to alcohol and drugs is bad, is terrible. No one wants to encourage that. But what if he was right? What if he’s so alcohol-dependent that he can’t live without it? What if he’s not got access to help? What if I don’t give him the money? Where will he get it from? What might he do?

But nobody else thinks like that, certainly not the charities whose business it is to help the homeless. Well, perhaps not nobody. Here’s Hayley Smith, owner of her own PR company but also founder of a charity called FlowAid which provides free sanitary products to homeless women. Smith also works directly with homeless charities in London including Acton Homeless Concern, St Mungo’s, and Ealing Soup Kitchen.

She also gives money to beggars on the street. But why, when we’re told we shouldn’t?

“It does make a difference, it can determine whether someone eats that day or not, or it can be the extra £2 needed to get a room that night, or even sanitary products,” says Smith. “You just never know the situation. However, it doesn’t just make a difference physically, it makes a difference mentally and emotionally. It makes them feel noticed and not invisible, and cared for, even for a split second. And this can make a world of difference.”

But they’re just going to blow it on drugs and booze, aren’t they? Smith says: “This is a huge stigma, and I see it all the time. People refusing to give monetary donations due to assuming it will go on drugs and alcohol. Though this may be the case for some people, it is unfair to tarnish everyone with the same brush.”

In fact, she says, there are a host of things that beggars might spend their cup of change on, and they aren’t all necessarily to do with addiction: “Many homeless people that I have worked with save the money, and spend it on shelters and rooms, which aren’t cheap, as well as internet cafés and phone top-ups. Things which we shouldn’t be denying people, yet we take for granted.”

Wait. What? Phone top-ups? Isn’t this just bringing us back to the idea of beggars raking in the cash and laughing at us mugs for handing it over? Or maybe… are we saying that just because someone’s at rock bottom we shouldn’t expect them to give up everything?

“Contrary to popular belief, many homeless individuals want to better themselves and change their situation,” agrees Smith. “And being homeless isn’t cheap or free, they still need food, support, shelter and access to resources in order to help themselves. And they rely as much on your donations as you do on your boss paying you every month.”

‘It’s hard to imagine the challenges that people on the streets face on a dailly basis’

While Smith accepts there is “a large and amazing support network” for the homeless, especially in larger cities, she says that many charities and official initiatives are bound by red tape and running costs. “Percentages of donations are divided into support costs, charity growth and admin, so not all of your money goes where you think it does,” she says. “What makes me laugh is that people won’t give directly to the homeless, because they don’t know where their money is going, yet they don’t know where their money is going when giving a charity donation. But with charities, there is some sort of security blanket. I’m not saying that charities are hiding where the donations go, as reports and statistics are readily available, and it has to be made clear – I am just thinking it’s a very hypocritical situation.”

I knew where my handful of change was going all those years ago in Manchester – straight in the till of the nearest off-licence. Should I have not given it then, or asked for it back?

“This is a huge discussion point, and I think sometimes it isn’t considered, and jaded by judgement,” says Smith. “Though I would never condone drug or alcohol abuse, and I don’t think it should be used as escapism, in the case of the homeless it is important to think a little differently.

“There are lots of programmes to help homeless people get off drugs and alcohol, but it is a longer-term project, and it isn’t that simple. Living on the streets isn’t easy, especially for women, and the problems that these people face on a daily basis are something we can’t even imagine.

“It is one thing becoming homeless, but dealing with life on the streets can be terrifying, challenging and risky. If getting drunk makes you survive another day, or helps you get through the night, then so be it. You can’t judge a situation until you are in it.”

It’s to be hoped none of us ever are in that situation. But here you are again, walking through your city centre, seeing a figure huddled in a shop doorway, asking for change. You have heard some of the arguments about giving, or not giving, money to beggars. What do you do?

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