Editor’s note: This article appeared first in the October 2017 issue of the New Statesmen. Some people object to the term “homeless” for a variety of reasons, among them being that it falsely categorizes people into types. As a result, even some who claim to want to help those without a roof over their heads tend to look down on them or do not realize that homelessness is a condition that can befall any of us. There can also be a failure to recognize the structural problems of society, including neoliberalism, poverty, lack of support for mental illness, etc. that affect both people who live on the street and people who do not but still live on the fringes of society. Nevertheless, the term “homeless” is used by many individual and groups with a legitimate interest in helping those who have fallen through the cracks and we are not going to take an overly critical view of their use of the term.
In fact, the writer of the article points out the ways that some people moralistically and hypocritically preach against giving small change to street people and also notes how some agencies charged with providing assistance actually play a punitive role. One such group in the UK is Thames Reach, which is primarily funded by the government, and which not only makes no mention of the many gatekeeping barriers vulnerable people must cross to secure benefits and a stable hostel place but also ignores the fact that the foreign nationals who make up over half of London’s rough-sleeping population cannot claim benefits to access the hostel network at all. Rather, Thames Reach and other top charities shop homeless foreigners to the Home Office to be deported.
This article originally appeared in the New Statesman, October 24, 2017.
Give your cash directly and unconditionally to homeless people.
Don’t just buy them a sandwich from Pret. They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given. Don’t just give to people performing, singing, or accompanied by a cute dog. Buskers deserve a wage too, of course. But homeless people are not your dancing monkey and they shouldn’t have to perform to earn your pity.
Don’t second-guess whether people are “really” homeless. Those who think begging is a shortcut to easy money should try humiliating themselves daily in front of thousands of total strangers who won’t even look at them or acknowledge their existence. It is gruelling, soul-destroying work. If people are desperate enough to beg, they need it.
Don’t just give to people who ask you directly, but to the guy with his head in his hands and a Styrofoam cup on the ground in front of him. Give to the woman who’s blind drunk. Give to the guy with meth-rotted teeth. Give to the spice addict who can’t look you in the eye.
Many street beggars are addicts, yes. Do addicts not deserve food? Wouldn’t you want to drink if you were in their position? Don’t you get drunk every weekend to cope with work stress anyway? Who are you to tell them what to do with their bodies
As the founder of User Voice, a charity led and staffed by former homeless addicts, says: “If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that’s nice but not your business either.”
Of course, it is true that your drinking habit and theirs are fundamentally different. Addiction is rooted in material circumstance – alcohol is the obvious example, but think how many skiing accidents end in courses of opiates far stronger than anything you’d find on the street without any long-term compulsion developing. It can only be tackled by raising people out of poverty, and a brute-force severing of cash flow is not going to starve people into seeking help from authorities they know will not, or cannot, help them.
Yet this abject morality, which says we must push people to rock bottom before we are able to help them, is seized on by austerity governments always greedy to do less. In fact, studies show begging emerges in the “middle-late stages” of homelessness, once people have already exhausted other options. The rock bottom has already been reached.
Eighty per cent of homeless people in the UK experienced no support or advice the last time they were moved on by police or council workers. When the government claims that most people begging on the street are refusing better help, what they mean is the help on offer is not adequate.
Homeless people need free, state-provided housing and fully-funded psychological care. What they get is £538m annual cuts to mental health services and austerity measures driving them into arrears with private landlords and on to the street.
The average life expectancy of a homeless man in London is 47. For women, it is 43. This is lower than the general life expectancy of any nation on the planet. These lives will be improved by systemic, not loose, change.
In the absence of an adequate government response, charitable giving and hostels remain lifesavers to many thousands of people. But big homelessness charities are already receiving millions yearly, while those deemed impossible to help die outside. When I speak to rough sleepers, it is local communities, squatters and grassroots organisations like the London-wide Streets Kitchen which they credit with keeping them alive.
“There is no need to beg on the streets in 2017,” leading London homelessness charity Thames Reach claims. “Hostel rent is covered through Housing Benefit [and] it is an urban myth that if you have no address, you cannot claim benefits.”
The charity, which is primarily funded by the government, makes no mention of the many gatekeeping barriers vulnerable people must cross to secure benefits and a stable hostel place.
Most damningly, they do not mention the fact that the foreign nationals who make up over half of London’s rough-sleeping population cannot claim benefits to access the hostel network at all. Rather, Thames Reach and other top charities shop homeless foreigners to the Home Office to be deported.
It is those same government-funded charities that push the narrative that “kindness kills” as they tout for your donations. Do not believe them. Apathy and austerity kill. Your kindness saves lives.
Matt Broomfield is a journalist and activist. He tweets @hashtagbroom