Should the increase in poverty affect our response to people begging?

homeless-man-public-domainA while ago I was talking with a woman on Baker Street in central London who was begging and said she was homeless. She obviously had some form of drug dependency and almost certainly some form of mental health problems.

As I was talking to her about the centre that West London Mission runs for homeless people nearby, another woman came up and thrust £10 into her hand and said ‘God bless you’. The homeless woman’s eyes lit up and she expressed sincere gratitude as her benefactor continued their journey to work.

On one level, it was a lovely moment – someone in need being helped by a stranger. And the accompanying verbal blessing was more than just a throw-away comment; it indicated that the act was an expression of a desire to show God’s love and acceptance.

One thing is for sure – this act of generosity was certainly appreciated by the homeless woman a lot more than anything I said to her. Her response to the woman’s gift contrasted sharply with the distracted and uninterested response to anything I was trying to say. She was clearly relieved when I left her to continue her begging.

But was this really a lovely moment? Did that £10 make a positive difference to that woman? Was she ‘blessed’ in receiving it?

Killing with Kindness?

Ten years ago Jeremy Swain, the CEO of the homeless charity Thames Reach, launched a campaign called Killing with Kindness highlighting the harm done by people who give money to people begging. In his blog this week he reflected on that campaign and the others it had led to around the country:

“The reason why such campaigns are considered necessary is because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging on the streets are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine. Naturally the street outreach teams are well aware of this. It is also regularly confirmed by the police following operations to arrest persistent beggars when, consistently, at least 70 per cent test positive for hard drugs. Usually the majority of those arrested are not sleeping rough but in some form of accommodation.”

(click here for the full article)

A Christian response?

In some people’s eyes the campaign’s message is still controversial. One key group of people who need to be won over by anti-begging campaigns are Christians who, like the woman I witnessed in Baker Street, want to be generous. We cannot avoid the fact that this is an issue which Jesus spoke very directly about:

“Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.” (Luke 6:30)

I remember attending a meeting of the Christian homeless group UNLEASH (now merged with Housing Justice) who invited Jeremy to speak about the Killing with Kindness campaign after its launch. The meeting was chaired by the legendary priest, and founder of Centrepoint, Kenneth Leech. Many there either disagreed with Jeremy or were clearly nervous about what he was saying. I recall how Leech summed up the meeting by talking about the importance of the Christian tradition of alms giving to the poor, which kind of took the whole debate back to the square one.

What is your response?

Over the last 20 years I have always had pretty clear views on this subject. As opposed to many of my fellow Christians, I strongly agreed with the message of the Killing with Kindness campaign. You can read more about my view on this issue in the article When helping homeless people doesn’t help.

Next week I am participating in a debate on this issue. The reason for this post is that in the last week, I have been challenged by two people on this subject.

One said, quite straightforwardly, that as a Christian he feels he needs to simply obey what Jesus said about giving to those who ask.

The second person said that the recession, benefit changes and the clear need for Food Banks had changed the context. Now giving to people begging was justified because of a rise in poverty.

So ahead of this debate, I would really appreciate the honest views of anyone reading this. Please don’t feel you need any ‘expertise’ – just be honest about what you think. I am especially interested in responses to these three questions:

1) Does Jesus’ instructions mean that Christians should give to people however they will use the money?

2) Has the recession and increase in poverty increased the justification to give to people begging?

3) Does anyone have any experiences where giving to someone begging has really made a positive difference in that person’s life?

You can also see this previous R&R post from 2 years ago which includes a poll on how people respond to people begging.

About Jon Kuhrt

Jon Kuhrt works with people affected by homelessness, offending and addictions at the West London Mission. He, his wife and three children are part of Streatham Baptist Church and he is a member of the Christians on the Left. He likes football...but loves cricket.
This entry was posted in Homelessness and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to Should the increase in poverty affect our response to people begging?

  1. Greg Smith says:

    I tend to agree with you John.. but not really because giving unconditionally risks the money going on drugs or booze. If you give you can’t patronize people and demand they spend it on what you think is good for them. You are recognizing they are human beings and moral agents.

    However I think the more important point is that real effective help can only be given on the basis of an ongoing relationship..Helping a stranger… (except in a Jericho road mugging situation) and leaving them as a stranger is a sub Christian act. So get to know the person if you possibly can – and I know it’s not so easy on the streets of London.

    People we know sometimes give quite substantial amounts to people in need /destitute but who they know quite well. Several years ago there was a case where someone who was desperate was given several hundred quid.. and used it to clear drug debts. That person and his partner are both now drug free, in work, thriving as people.. and moving forward in their faith… Without that crazy alms giving who knows where they would be now?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks Greg. The first point you raise highlights the problem with the ‘transaction’ element – begging is not a good way to build a relationship and it is relationships which make more of a difference than anything.

      I am really, really interested in the stories you refer to where people have been given money and it has liberated them and enabled them to start again. If anyone involves want to share that story it would be great to have it as a guest post if thats a possibility.

  2. Bene says:

    I give. Always have. The difference will lie in ‘how’ In Edinburgh, buying a coupon from specific cafes to give to those begging on the street, meant they could get a hot cup of tea and a a bun. The Soup Bus, run by all the Edinburgh churches, and manned by each in turn every month, so that it ran every evening, offered soup and blankets, conversation and a chance of community, at regular stops round the city.
    In Oxford, where scattered groups of desperate women (middle-European) huddle on the pavement with small children, I have usually had a conversation, asking what they need, and then bought nappies etc from a chemist…I have several times seen the women later, handing over money to their ‘minder’.
    Perhaps, with the acceptance, use and increase of FoodBanks (and the Trussell Trust was started in memory of her mother by a Christian), society is finding a means to be generous to those in need, that does not hand responsibility over to ‘the government’.
    Perhaps in time we shall have no shame attached to the giving and receiving of food etc., as once was a natural part of pre-Reformation Britain.

    • Greg says:

      Problem with food banks is that unless they add in other services such as signposting, debt counselling, housing advice they are not much better than giving a sandwich to a beggar on the street… The best ones do… but most Christians who donate thir tins of beans are a long way from understanding the causes of poverty and the interventions that might really help

      • Bene says:

        Willing to pass on more information on any ‘interventions that might really help’. Would you like to post details? Links?

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Bene – and out of interest could you say more about your motivation to give – is it because you think it works to make a difference or something more basic about it being the right thing to do regardless of the impact of it?

      • Bene says:

        Motivation, like us all, I expect, is mixed. Mainly, having a lifelong social conscience, I try to talk to those who know more – those who are homeless, charities, etc, read as widely as possible without becoming obsessed; and write to my MP! I remain poorly-informed because I cannot know the whole dread and desperation, nor the full ‘under-story’ of political decisions. Motivation is the desire for justice, compassion and a strong sense that as long as each one of us does what we can, there is hope. There’s more, but that is a start, perhaps.

      • Jon Kuhrt says:

        Thanks very much

      • Bene says:

        …and, as someone says elsewhere, food and drink are the least judgmental ways of offering at least a chance to eat.

      • Jon Kuhrt says:

        Yes, I like the way Del phrased that.

  3. Jeannie says:

    Like others I would give, but always food (or nappies etc if babies). Ideally I would sit with them and talk, but that is not always possible (for them or me). Some years ago I spent a night on the streets just talking with people – the abiding memory was how very different each person’s story was. There is no such thing as a “group” of people begging or a “group” of homeless people. There are just a lot of people with a lot of very different stories.

    • Bene says:

      How true this is. On the Edinburgh (soup) buses, we began by speaking of ‘the homeless’ then rapidly ‘homeless people’, and very soon after of ‘Lizzie, Tom’ etc., everyone has a face and a story. The cruelty of poverty is to lump people together as nameless ‘homeless’.

  4. Lou says:

    I find it a challenge – part of me thinks that it’s not my place to judge- who I am to judge? I’ve been addicted – not to crack or smack – but even so I know feeling of being out of control to an addiction. Is me not giving money going to a person with an addiction really going to stop their addiction – or push them to committing a crime to get the cash to buy their drugs/alcohol? My preference would be to give the person an oyster card – but don’t always have one to hand- and most of the requests I’ve received have been for help”to get me into a night hostel”- apparently you do have to pay for some hostels – I really don’t know if this is accurate. I do though always tell a person sleeping rough about places they may be able to get help like St Martin’s in the day or night shelters and I phone No Second Night Out.

    • Bene says:

      That idea of the oyster card is great. A friend went under-cover to record life on the London streets for a TV programme some years back. One thing he noted was how impossible the system was when any government organisation was involved. He turned up, queued, and was told he needed a second signature, or a different form or additional paperwork (none of which had been stated in advance) Invariably this involved crossing London to a different office – which had shut before he set out (no-one said) and also meant wearing-out shoes since the cost of transport was unaffordable.
      The whole thing was deliberately difficult: a deterrent to anyone.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Thanks Lou – I am glad you raised those options and the connection in with an established service and the idea of an oyster card is interesting as an alternative

  5. Darren says:

    I used to run club nights in central London so you would see all sorts of people through the evening/night. I have been scammed and scammed and scammed and have only come across a handful of people who genuinly needed money for either rent or food. I have come across so many people who were begging for extra beer money or drugs, some even did it as a ritual before their evening out (remembering clubs/bars only close 3+ in central London (and some not at all) and you can hit most people for cash before the tubes shut and most people leave). Some amazingly convincing stories which turned out to be utter lies (discovered by speaking to the bouncers who had heard the same story night after night). While I appreciate Jesus‘s line about ‘give to those who ask’, Jesus, filled with the spirit, was also able to descern people and situations and gave to people what they needed not what they wanted. We did help one guy out over a space of a couple of years, every other night giving him cash to pay for his shelter – his was a genuine case of ‘down on your luck’. Eventually he did get himself back on his feet and the council gave him a flat.

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks Darren – I think your points and experiences are really important. Addictions or intoxication lead people to tell all sorts of lies – surely we have to be able to say that without being accused of narrow judgmentalism?

      Te discernment point is important. and its why people who work with homeless and addicted people hardly ever give money – its not because of cynicism but because they know how ineffective it is.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Hi – I’m not your average christian – more lapsed and unpractising, but here are my views

    1) Where did the cause say give specifically money? If you get away from the idea that money is what people need, then i think the view of offerings changes. But yes, i think the intention to give should not be bound by expectation – if by human nature you find yourself unable to give from that expectation, then it should be sent with an offering of expectation – humanistically you can’t control the outcome..

    2) A little, it’s made people more morally aware so the prevailing atmosphere seems to have changed.

    3) Good luck with this one – your question did conjure up the impresssion that begging only happens between strangers – would you call giving to someone you knew as begging or use a different term? My recent experience with a plasterer who was doing some odd jobs for me, who have fallen on hard times that I helped, financially and by offering a roof over their head for a time being, has been negative, they only sought to take more from me as a result, then stole from me when I couldn’t given in the way they ‘wanted’ (which wasn’t what I could offer) , and finally had to remove them from my life and get the police involved

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      thanks so much for your thoughts. The point about people who you know is important – there is a whole book to be written about acts of kindness such as you mention which have been misused and which have ended up going very badly and leaving people feeling very burnt.

  7. Greg says:

    Talking through situations with the person in need is so important.. There are so many varieties of “homeless” people.. For some it may be the first night on the streets- and they may be the easiest to help.. Others are entrenched rough sleepers, deep in a lifestyle and community of their peers – incredibly difficult to move on… Often the moral issue personally is deciding whether our time is worth more than our money..

    • Jon Kuhrt says:

      Yes absolutely Greg – and one of Jeremy’s points is that many people who visibly most ‘look’ homeless are not in fact homeless. Begging and street drinking overlap with homelessness but they are not the same things.

  8. Del Thomas says:

    Personally I only give by buying food or hot drinks as I know the majority will use it for beer money. This is something I have seen time and time again and by buying them food I know i am meeting a need of theirs. They choose to spend their money on alcohol. This means they dont eat, often if we dont give them food then they wont eat for a day or so.
    My view is the most least judgemental thing to do is to give them the chance to eat. Yes it means that their money is freed up to spend on booze but at the end of their day that is their choice.

  9. Loy says:

    Interesting what you say about people giving and then getting hurt, I try and give what I can without conditionality – I’ve given before when possibly I might have been being conned but I don’t give to receive I just give without expectation then I don;t feel any sense of betrayal. At the end of the day I chose give as an expression of my living faith and if people are lying then I believe that is their karma (probably not strictly Christian but neither am I!). Giving to degree that makes you suffer if the person is not being truthful isn’t helpful to you so it’s important to have personal boundaries.

  10. I wrestle with this one in an ongoing way. On the one hand I have helped set up and lead the ‘Killing with Kindness’ campaign in Leamington because
    a) financial help rarely helps (even if it does communicate a moment of caring) and I’m fed up of watching people I love being assisted in perpetuating their dependency sometimes to the point of killing them.
    b) I get angry and frustrated that passers by get their good will exploited by people begging lying to them
    c) It allows passers by to assuage their guilt without actually engaging with the person and what has bought them to that place.
    d) most people left with nothing don’t beg in public – they borrow from elsewhere or go without.

    However, I constantly come back to the issue because:
    a) I worry that the issue headline feeds into a hardening attitude about the poor striver / scrounger debate (even though the campaign itself does not say that)
    b) As many of the commentators above mention I do value the unconditionality of giving and not tying gifts in with expecting a particular behaviour in response as many organisations do
    c) When people actually are rough sleeping (although many begging aren’t) or have experienced horrendous things who am I to say that drinking copious amounts of alcohol to escape and cope isn’t the most rational and sensible response?

    I don’t think the economic situation changes whether we should give to people begging. There is a question about whether we have to move backwards from ‘rehabilitation’ & ‘development’ to providing ’emergency relief’ but that debate is better had in the context of Foodbanks, not begging.

    So I’m looking to model something deeper and am being challenged by the story in Acts 3 when Peter came into the city and told the person begging who is lame:
    “Silver and Gold I do not have but what I have I give to you”
    before healing the man and setting him free.
    As Christians this is what we are called to do. Heal the sick, set the captives free, fight for the oppressed, feed the hungry, house the homeless, and all because we have the power and authority of Jesus living inside us and working through us. We do have silver and gold, but we have a lot lot more to pour out and give.

    Increasingly over the last couple of years I’ve encouraged churches coming through their doors with chaotic people to ignore the ‘homelessness’ or ‘alcoholism’ and treat the person in the way they would anyone else that was showing an interest in their church / faith. Talk to them, pray with them, don’t try and fix them. Churches are rarely expert agencies and shouldn’t try and be (although they should know where to find them)- they need to be the places they’re called to be – welcoming, accepting communities of people following Jesus.

  11. Eshwyn says:

    1) Does Jesus’ instructions mean that Christians should give to people however they will use the money?

    I think we are also urged to think. Simply giving without thought can be harmful and I think God/Jesus expected us to behave like adults and understand the consequences of the things we do, whether they are kind or not. The idea of responsibility for ourselves and for others is a strong part of my feeling of what it is to be Christian. Giving without thought of the consequences is not the whole story. Sadly I think most of us are too busy or too lazy to do the right thing which to stop and understand people’s needs, and then help them – myself included.

    2) Has the recession and increase in poverty increased the justification to give to people begging?

    Yes depending on how you define begging. We’ve seen a huge rise in the numbers of people using foodbanks up here in Islington. People are desperate enough to ask for help now. However, the usual suspects are still on the streets in almost begging ‘pitches’.

    3) Does anyone have any experiences where giving to someone begging has really made a positive difference in that person’s life?

    Two experiences:

    I met Howard outside Highbury & Islington station about 4 or 5 years ago. He was reading a Dan Brown novel so we got chatting. Howard had a drug habit and was sleeping rough after his life had unravelled. However, he had a positive attitude and was honest about himself. He had a lot of pride so after we got to know each other he never begged from me but I regularly gave him a little change and always stopped to chat, if I could, to find out how he was doing. He now has a job helping other homeless people, and is concentrating on improving his relationship with his girlfriend and seeing more of his son.

    A couple of years ago I met a man begging outside Highbury & Islington Station. He told me he was begging for some money for food but that he was also a poet, and if I gave him some money he would recite some poetry to me. I agreed and was amazed as he then recited a poem based on a theme I had chosen. He said he was asking for money to help him at a time when he was struggling. I felt positive about this experience and that the money I gave him went on something other than drugs.
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  12. John says:

    An addict faces (and generally cannot see beyond) the short-term dilemna of get the next fix/drink/etc or suffer. For those who have never been there, it is hard to comprehend how real this suffering is. So I do not automatically view giving cash as harmful just because I know it will be spent on beer (or whatever) – not when the alternatives are commit a crime to pay for it, or suffer. It’s a sad fact that our human agency is often (always?) powerless to break another’s cycle of addiction. My own experience and belief is that only grace can do that, Sometimes, when we cannot reach the root causes of an individual case, the most Christian thing we can do is simply to ease the pain, even if that means directly or indirectly buying a can of beer. Obviously it’s easier to make these difficult moral decisions if you get to know the individual and undertand their circumstances.

  13. Mazie says:

    Great article.

  14. mick barker says:

    In relation to the woman you encountered at Baker Street it’s highly likely that I know her and the tenner she got would be used to score. I used to beg outside Baker Street Station for a few years and encountered so many characters both good and bad. I never used to ask passersby for anything but would leave it for the individual to make the choice. I was always so much more happy when the good samaritans used to tell me that God told them to help me, whether that be by way of food (or drink but I have to say that it would confuse some people when I refused to accept alcoholic drinks until I explained to them why but it is societies judgments kicking in, in the first jnstance) , cash, clothes, toiletries or even conversation as I was always grateful that people were just showing interest but can fully understand when you say about the woman’s disinterest in anything that you had to say but as you previously gathered there was a high likelihood that she was looking to score drugs however I can see both sides given I was a drug user up until 2010 but only began begging when I became homeless due to my previous drug use & associated debts and was not on drugs by that time so I was more appreciative of people who I came into contact with but it can be hard having conversations with people when you are trying to make enough food money whatever just to survive and generally, but given what you witnessed this maybe sounds strange to you, people don’t tend to stop/give when people are sat there talking to you, however given that I didn’t have a drug/drink habit to fund I could be more allowable with people. Sorry, I digress, the point I’m trying to make is it should be a personal choice on whether people give and people giving to me did make a positive effect on my life by keeping me going from day to day. I’m now off the streets & have been in employment but due to unfortunate circumstances I am no longer and I’m having to consider begging just to survive because what the government gives people does not come anywhere near the true amount what you need to live on, and not in a life of luxury either. begging on the streets can be extremely difficult in all weathers people don’t tend to realise that you get so many judgemental people coming up and down automatically they tell you what you doing what you’re not doing what you up to spend it on what you’re not to spend it on myself personally i’d rather they not give if they feel the need to dictate to me on what i should do with what they are giving me. as I say the ones that feel compelled by god to give me other ones that i feel truly blessed for because I feel the lord is looking down on me and help him protect me in my hour of need. to get even the most basic help through societies organisations, charities etc, you need to fit major criteria have mental or drug issues and if you don’t then you’ll get nothing and it’s no wonder more people turn into begging on the streets but more people becoming judgemental on them so is becoming such a vicious circle and it saddens me to know that is not gonna get any better. I’m a very candid person and would be open to speaking to you more if you would like to know any more about life on the streets and I just hope this helps with the issues that you feel you need to people to speak about.
    Regards and God Bless to All on earth x

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