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.