Walking around Oxford, you cannot help but notice the number of homeless people on the street. The contrast with the rest of the city – creamy, sun-touched towers and colleges, drenched in an age-old tradition of success and wealth – could not be more striking. More often than not, you will be approached by one of these unfortunate individuals asking for money. Each time they have done so, and after we have crossed paths, I will spend some time afterwards thinking upon the problems and ethics of charitable giving.
I do not intend to write on the broader problem of homelessness in society, potential government action on the issue, or anything of the sort – I have neither the expertise nor the experience. I simply wish to mull over the issue of someone personally giving money to beggars.
What I will say about government action is that it is used as an oft-quoted argument against giving. This tends to manifest itself in two different ways. In its broader, more abstract form, it states that the government should be providing for charitable causes, and aid by private entities (whether organisations or individuals) simply propagates the problem and should be instead paid to the government in taxes. Admittedly, this is an argument more focused on organisations which receive tax breaks for charitable giving, rather than individuals. The second strand of this argument that does manifest itself in private individuals is the belief that the Welfare State already provides for all citizens in society, so there is no need for people to be on the street begging – they can claim benefits off the government, so why should you give them money?
There is truth, I think, in the claim that the Welfare State has – perhaps ironically – dampened down on the social responsibility felt by private citizens towards charity. Certainly, looking at recent statistics from the World Giving Index (www.cafonline.org), it is not people from nations with a large welfare state that are most charitable.
Regardless of the arguments over the government’s role – I will engage with them no further – I do have problems with the above argument against charitable giving, especially for the homeless. The first is, quite simply, the fact that very few people in their right mind would choose to be homeless. If they are, then reason would assert that it is because they have no choice – they are failing, for whatever reason, to receive government support. As such, whatever you might think that the government should or shouldn’t do, I think it is not a stretch to suggest that you might be justified in feeling some sense of social responsibility and giving to them charitably.
Another argument raised against giving money to beggars is not knowing who you are giving to, or what they will be spend it on. On the former point, there are certainly fraudsters out there who parasitically prey on the decency of people in order to con them out of money. I should know, as I’ve been duped many a time, especially when younger and more naïve – reflecting on it later, I would realise that the well-dressed, overly-friendly person I gave money to earlier that day was almost-certainly not needy. The second point is more pressing, though. People, quite rightly, hope that the receiver would spend it on food, drink or accommodation, but worry that they will simply buy narcotics or alcohol. The possibility is not unlikely, according to both everyday observation and information from organisations such as Thames Reach (www.thamesreach.org.uk). The argument goes that the best way of helping the homeless is to donate directly to Homeless Charities, or to buy them a physical consumable, like a sandwich or coffee.
This does make sense, of course – the problem is that not all of us have the time to buy food for every beggar who approaches us on the street. Giving them money is far quicker – lazier, perhaps, but we all have lives to lead. Also, I’m not sure if I could feel comfortable walking past every homeless person on the street and never giving them money directly in the hope that homeless charities were taking up the slack. I haven’t the knowledge to discuss the economics of this, nor do I intend to; it’s just that personally I can’t always follow the ‘cruel to be kind’ approach on this issue.
Furthermore, I have to admit that I personally don’t care that much what the recipient spends my change on. The comedian Steve Hughes put it quite well, if flippantly, when he explained why he prefers giving directly to homeless people rather than larger charities: “I know exactly where my money is going, to this bloke with three socks and no shoes…. and now it’s going to the off-licence!” I have a similar attitude. The homeless are living through what must be a terribly humiliating, soul-draining time of their life. If booze or smack relieves the pain, if only for a little while, then I will leave that choice up to them. In any case, acts of kindness from a stranger can really brighten someone’s existence. I can’t imagine what it must be like to be ignored and avoided by everybody around you – surely even a brief ray of kindness might lighten up their day?
Moving on somewhat, I would ask whether you ‘prioritise’ certain beggars over others. I do not mean on a personal level, but would you be more inclined to give depending on the way they approach you? In my case, I feel more inclined to give to those who either sell the Big Issue or who are very polite and not forceful; on the other hand, I get irritated with those who show you their various ailments or claim urgent medical need – a need they repeat when they ask you again two weeks later, proving it to be something of a lie. Personally I do not need a half-baked reason to give – I will do so simply on the basis of someone being homeless, not due to any possible other reason. Perhaps some are more inclined to give to those they see with physical ailments – I don’t know. It certainly is not a tactic that works with me, but perhaps I am the exception rather than the rule.
You might get the idea from this article that I am a sandal-wearing do-gooder who is strongly into volunteering and charity work. This is not the case, and I am not saying that you should always give to beggars – far from it. I certainly don’t always, though I try to do so relatively frequently. Nobody, I think, has the time or money to give to every single unfortunate soul they meet, nor are they obliged, morally or otherwise, to do so – it is their cash to use as they see fit. It is simply a case that personally, I do not accept, or cannot live by, a lot of the common arguments against giving to beggars. Maybe I’m gullible, or simply weak-willed – quite likely. Maybe I am simply being selfish and gratifying my subconscious desire to establish my social dominance, and to relieve myself of the irritation of guilt – also possible. Nevertheless, Christmas is on the horizon, and all I know is that when a homeless man comes up to me in the street and asks for spare change, I often find it hard to say no.