Christabel Stevens ponders whether we should give cash directly to the homeless …
We like to think we live in a compassionate society. Whether it be petitions on Change.org, viral charity videos or social media shining the spotlight on social injustice, it could be argued that we are more attuned than ever to matters of inequality. However, there is a longstanding issue right under our noses which is often overlooked because of the uncomfortable questions it can raise – and that is homelessness. In 2016, official figures estimated that there were around 4,134 people sleeping rough on England’s streets on an average night: a shameful figure for a nation as developed and wealthy as the UK. On the surface, it might be tempting to think that if the public wishes to give money directly to those sleeping rough, this will help alleviate the problem and should be encouraged. However, the reality is far from that simple.
Winter is here, and the thought of the homeless people we see on our streets not having a warm bedroom to go back to is almost unbearable. It seems like the least we can do to dip into our pockets and hand them a pound or two. However, it has been widely suggested that giving cash to rough sleepers does more harm than good, with prominent homelessness charities urging people NOT to give cash to those begging on the street. This might seem callous, but homelessness is a complex social issue. Many long-term homeless people are serious drug users, and have reached the point in their addictions where such basic human comforts as a warm, safe bed are simply no longer their first priority. Drug dealers haunt every town centre, and they make a roaring trade among rough sleepers. The brutal truth is that people don’t tend to care much about nourishment when they are in the grip of an addiction to hard drugs.
Journalist and activist Matt Broomfield penned a controversial article in New Statesman in October, speaking out against those who do not give cash to the homeless. He calls for people to give cash ‘directly and unconditionally’ to rough sleepers, and has suggested we leave our judgement out of it.
In his article, Broomfield quotes Mark Johnson, the founder of User Voice, a charity staffed by former addicts. Perhaps surprisingly, Johnson’s view is that donations going to fund drug addiction are par for the course, and that it is none of our business if the money goes to buy their next hit. He even says, “If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead.”
This seems like a rather fatalistic and grim view. Surely if somebody were to die of an overdose on a freezing street or park bench, it means that they lost their battle with addiction and were not helped soon enough, not that they would ‘rather be dead’, as if they’ve made an empowering choice.
In his article, Broomfield called out London homeless charity Thames Reach, who have said publicly that we shouldn’t give cash directly to the homeless, and have long promoted the message that ‘kindness can kill’. A few days after Broomfield’s article appeared, they responded directly in the New Statesman with an article which stated that giving money to the homeless can literally ‘condemn them to death’ as many are helplessly addicted to drugs. The article explained how giving homeless addicts cash at their most vulnerable is a terrible idea, and we should give food, blankets, clothes and drinks instead, whilst donating cash directly to the charities.
Broomfield’s view is that we should give indiscriminately to homeless people, regardless of whether they are in the obvious grip of a destructive drug addiction. He argues that it is their choice what they do with the cash, and that to withhold it would be akin to treating them like children. “They’re not four,” Broomfield writes. He raises a good point. A homeless person has their own personal set of reasons for becoming homeless, and although drugs are often involved, it is not for us to delve into their backstories and deem them fit, or otherwise, to handle currency.
Broomfield’s article also raised the spectre of morality. The implication of his argument was that if someone spends their cash on drugs, then it is their decision and we should not attempt to impart our own moral ruling over where our change goes, once given. As Broomfield puts it, “Who are you to judge what they do with that cash?”.
I agree that we should not feel morally superior to the homeless. Drugs are hardly used exclusively by the homeless anyway, as anyone who has ever had to use the bathroom at a sketchy bar or club will attest to. In my opinion, drug addiction should not be looked upon as a moral failing, but rather as a disease needing both physical and psychological treatment. Also, it would be foolish for us to think, “Whatever they did to end up in that situation, it could never happen to me.” A relationship breakdown, a job loss or a drug problem could all be catalysts for a chain of events that lead to us losing our accommodation. We are all a few bad decisions or strokes of ill luck away from the streets.
Ultimately, I feel that it is irresponsible to give cash to rough sleepers and we should not do it, however instinctive it may feel. Unfortunately, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that it ends up in the pockets of dealers and further contributes to the drug problem in many of the UK’s cities. Coming off drugs such as heroin can be very dangerous, which is where charities come in with their rehab programmes and links to the correct NHS services. Thames Reach and other charities like it offer hostels and specialist accommodation as well as health programmes and tenancy support.
Here in Loughborough we have Carpenter’s Arms, a residential rehab centre for homeless men struggling with drugs and alcohol, as well as The Bridge, Exaireo Trust and several others. These services have one mission: to improve the outcomes for homeless people and support them in getting off the streets. It seems like common sense to support such organisations, and of course to give food and clothing where we can, rather than giving money directly.
It is a lovely idea that begging money will help people get off the streets. However, the truth is that it is charities that will really help them to do that. If we really want to help, those charities are the ones to whom we should donate our spare change.