#OpenMinday @JeremySwain @MikeNicholas2 @ThamesReach and begging

What is Open Minday?

Some years ago, around Christmas time, I left a Tesco with a £5 note in my pocket. Outside the door was a man tucked under the bare wet branches of a tree. He was sodden, cold and filthy. The note was out of my pocket and into his hand as soon as I thought about it. Because, let’s face it, what the hell difference can £5 make to me?

But I’ll be honest. I’ve given money to beggars for many reasons, but chief among them is guilt. Because I have it better than they. Because, once, I stole from a charity. And because for more than half my life I tried to pay back that debt in any way I could. So I wasn’t actually doing it for them. I was doing it for me.

My wife’s view on begging is uncompromising. And the longer I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve realised that you can reject begging, and beggars, without judging people who are homeless. You can believe that beggars are maintaining a situation that they could escape, without damning everyone who ever falls into homelessness.

And, finally, listening to @MikeNicholas2 talk on Radio 4’s PM show last week, the last piece of me which felt bad for not giving money to beggars was removed. The guilt was eased. Because he exposed a lot of the reasons why people give money to be false, and the reasons why people beg to be a lot darker than you might hope.

Mike is the media dude for @ThamesReach, a London charity campaigning against homelessness. He was on Radio 4 after the Paris crackdown on begging in big-name tourist locations was announced. From the setup to his interview I believe that, amazingly, PM wanted to find someone who would condemn the decision. Mike didn’t do that.

Because of course, as he said, begging has been illegal in the UK for more than 150 years. And because as much as we would like to believe that giving money to beggars does good, in the overwhelming majority of cases this simply isn’t true – borne out in Thames Reach’s Killing With Kindness campaign.

Just a few stats for you: “Westminster Council surveys show that 86 per cent of people begging spend the cash they receive on drugs and alcohol”; “Seven out of ten beggars arrested in Westminster in 2005 tested positive for Class A drugs”; “In the experience of frontline workers, people are more likely to accept help and to address their addictions when they are not receiving money from begging”.

Or, in the words of Mike Nicholas, giving money to beggars directly lines the pockets of drug dealers. Not exactly the Christmas spirit you might invoke when moved to hand over a few coins in the run up to Christmas Day.

But what sealed it was Mike shattering the classic beg as an urban myth – anyone who asks you for 20p to pay for a room in a homeless shelter for the night is pulling the wool over your eyes. Mike was talking about London specifically, where homeless shelters do not charge but I’ve regularly been asked for money for a room for the night.

Before making any response, first read this fascinating piece deconstructing begging myths by Thames Reach CEO @JeremySwain. Eye-opening highlights include: “There is no need to beg on the streets in 2011. It is an urban myth that if you have no address, you cannot claim benefits. This simply isn’t true”, and “There is no evidence that reducing begging leads to more crime. In fact, it can stimulate people to address their real needs, instead of avoiding facing them”.

It’s hard news to take. I was in London just a few weeks ago and felt emotionally gut-punched when a clearly damaged and unstable old man asked me for change before stumbling off crying and whimpering like a child. It’s heartbreaking. But giving money to beggars does absolutely nothing but a quick fix – both for the beggar and for us.

Because be honest now. Look at yourself and think about the last time you gave money to a beggar. Was it a wholly altruistic decision? Didn’t it feel good, didn’t it feel like you were helping? Didn’t it feel like you were doing good? The sad fact is that you weren’t, that we made a bad decision, that we have to stop begging.

And the only way to stop begging is to stop giving money to beggars.

If you want to do something or learn more, @MikeNicholas2, @JeremySwain and @ThamesReach (not to mention dozens of other charities) can help you.

About Ben Catley-Richardson

Writer, reader, husband. Father!
This entry was posted in #OpenMinday and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to #OpenMinday @JeremySwain @MikeNicholas2 @ThamesReach and begging

  1. I like to imagine what I might do if I were homeless. If you do the same, do you conclude that you’d spend all day every day selling the Big Issue? If not, that’s your basis for considering what options are open to the people who do. Most people don’t class Big Issue sellers as beggars, and buy the magazine because they want to support the people who are at least ‘doing something’ with themselves. Having lived in Oxford for years and been hounded by sellers who also beg, whose accents made me think they had moved to Oxford from London to cash in on tourists and students, my perceptions of Big Issue sellers changed. I started to seriously wonder if this was a career choice for them, and whether they had exhausted the avenues to housing and jobs. Surely we have a system to prevent the need for anyone to be homeless for years on end. It is my failing that I have not since looked for and found these answers to my ponderings.

    Last Christmas I decided I wanted to give £20 to one particular Big Issue seller to wish him Merry Christmas. I chose him because of his spirit, his attitude. I believed he had beaten his addictions and was sober. He dressed up and entertained passers by whenever he could, he’d get into the festive spirit, sing, not take himself too seriously, and try to make people laugh. I thought he came across as a genuinely lovely person. He had caused me to smile many times as I walked through Oxford and I wanted to make him smile in return. I gave him his £20 and a kiss for christmas. He was everso grateful. I don’t know for sure that my money didn’t go on drugs, but I hope it didn’t. I don’t regret my choice.

    Looking back now, I only wish I’d have spoken to him properly and found out more about him and his life, his journey, his plans. Maybe I could have helped him more. I’d love to invite him to have coffee and cake in a cafe with me. Would he accept? This kind of interaction can’t be common. You have to trust someone to accept that kind of invitation. Is it really my place to ask this man these personal questions? Would it be right to try to help one man instead of getting involved with a charity who could help many more? Is it arrogant of me to think I could help him? I have a strong sense of active citizenship, personal citizenship. Meaning I want to help others by myself, in small ways, as often as possible. Oxford gives you an experience of houndedness by charities as well as by the homeless. Money, charities want your money. England, please give us more opportunities to volunteer our time and our labour instead! I know nobody who regularly volunteers at a soup kitchen or similar. There’s nothing wrong with feeling great when you give to others, but think about How. You. Want. To. Give.

  2. loser says:

    have you ever wandered where all the millions donated to crisis st. mungoes et al. is going?? let me tell you its not getting peoples off the street. have you ever had to beg? no. you havent so until you have dont try to explain it to everyone. thanks

  3. I haven’t had to beg, you’re right. I hope I never find myself in the situation where I must make the decision. If you have, I’m sorry for you.
    But accusing charities of corruption and fraud doesn’t seem to hold water – do you have proof of what you’re saying or is it what you feel must be the truth because you didn’t (or somone you know didn’t) receive the support you believed they should have provided?
    I’m not interested in trying to ‘explain’ begging to everyone, I’m interested in the fact that people who beg don’t seem to benefit from it. Begging doesn’t seem to lead to an escape from the street. So begging must be a choice, unless there is absolutely no other choice which is possible to make.
    Thanks for your thoughts, I appreciate you taking the time to read my post.

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