‘Never look down on anybody unless you’re helping them up’ – Jesse Jackson
How do you feel when you come across someone begging on the street? For most of us, it’s invariably a painful and confusing experience. Why are they there? Does this mean that they’re homeless? How should I respond? Is it safe, or appropriate, or helpful, to put my hand in my pocket? What’s really going on?
One thing we can be sure of is that it’s not easy or straightforward to beg for money in a public place. Back in the early 1990s I was commissioned by the charity Crisis to carry out a research project into begging in London. Together with a team of volunteers we interviewed 143 people who were begging on the street. One of the clearest findings was that the majority of people who were begging found it an extremely hard and painful experience, and that, at least initially, it brought up powerful feelings of shame, embarrassment and alienation as well as fear and anxiety. For most people, taking up begging seems to create profound damage to the psyche, whether at a conscious or unconscious level.
Another thing we can be reasonably sure of is that the person who is begging is not having a good time. If they’re sitting on the ground, their line of vision will be largely the legs and feet of the people walking past them plus the occasional dog. If passers-by do glance at them, they’re doing that from above. An even smaller number of passers-by will choose to make eye contact, and an alarming proportion of these may constitute a threat rather than a source of support. There are many shocking stories about members of the general public choosing to take out their personal anger or frustration on someone who is more vulnerable than themselves. And it can be more than verbal abuse or even a stray kick – there are even stories of people being set alight while out on the street.
Finally, we can be sure that the person who is begging wants money, although not for what purpose. Many of us may have had the experience of offering food or drink to a beggar only to find that it’s not actually what they want or need. If someone is hungry, Frome’s community fridge and community larder provides a daily supply of free food, there’s the food bank provided by Fair Frome, and they can enjoy a free hot lunch at The Good Heart in Palmer Street with no questions asked. We should make sure that they know about these local services, but sadly it’s more likely that the money is being used to support a habit such as drug or alcohol use.
What we can’t be sure of is that the person who is begging is actually homeless. It may seem a natural association, given that both beggars and rough sleepers are out in the public domain, but whenever possible most homeless people prefer to be invisible and out of harm’s way. We know that some individuals who are begging in Frome have told the public that they need a specific sum of money – say £40 – to resolve their housing difficulties by travelling home to family, getting into a hostel or paying a deposit. However the fact that they’re begging again in the same place a few days or weeks later suggests that this may not have been the truth.
Other people who are begging will welcome even a small amount of cash as a means to help them manage the difficult and painful situation they are in. In such situations, it doesn’t feel appropriate for us to dictate what they spend it on – who’s to say that a small luxury such as a nice coffee or cake isn’t exactly what they most need in that moment to lift their spirits? And if we come across someone begging with a dog, they may well be looking for money to pay for pet food and healthcare for their closest and most loving companion.
Given all these complexities, what are the most helpful and kind ways to respond when we come across someone who is begging?
Breaking down social isolation is often one of the most helpful and appreciated things we can do, provided that this is done in a respectful way. We can make eye contact, be friendly, and open up a conversation in whatever way is comfortable and authentic for us.
If we suspect that a person is genuinely homeless, we can tell them about the national Streetlink service on www.streetlink.org.uk and 0300 5000914, or if it feels appropriate, contact Streetlink on their behalf. This will connect that person with a local outreach team of skilled professional workers who will come to find them where they are and help them get access to housing and other services. Fair Housing for Frome has also produced a leaflet about local homelessness services which is available on the Fair Housing for Frome website here or from the Town Hall and from Discover Frome.
Sometimes we may want to offer a modest amount of spare change, with no questions asked, as an expression of goodwill and support for someone who’s going through a difficult time. If we do choose to give something, we can do that with a word and a smile. For example, it’s much kinder to put a coin in someone’s hand than to throw it in their direction.
If you’re concerned about the bigger picture, about why people are living in such difficult, isolated or inhumane circumstances, then please consider supporting a local charitable organization such as Fair Frome, Fair Housing for Frome or the Mendip Credit Union who are working all year round to tackle poverty and homelessness in our town. Simply by joining a mailing list and staying informed you’ll be making a welcome expression of encouragement and support.