Helping the homeless
Is it right to give money to the homeless, or can it make the situation worse in the long-run? Are you someone who delves into your pockets for your last bit of change without any hesitation, or do you refuse because you're worried it will be spent on alcohol or drugs? without any hesitation, or do you refuse because you're worried it will be spent on alcohol or drugs?
How many times have you walked past someone shivering in a doorway begging for spare change or sat next to a cash point as you self-consciously draw out wads of cash for your big night out?
Helping the homeless
Emma from Shelter and Keith from The Big Issue explain how best you can help homeless people.
It's natural to feel guilty and want to help, but for many of us there's also the worry about whether they're legitimate. Is it kinder to offer money to people less fortunate than ourselves, or will we be doing more harm than good?
The many faces of homelessness
"Many people think that homeless people are lazy and should just go out and get a job," says Amanda, at Arch, a charity dedicated to preventing and resolving homelessness in North Staffordshire. "Nevertheless, people become homeless for a number of reasons - many of which aren't their own fault. They require long-term support, rather than condemnations."
"They often have significant problems to deal with," says Sophie Livingstone at Foyer. "A common misconception is that it's your own fault if you've become homeless; that homeless people are alcoholics or drug users; and they are going to cause anti-social behaviour. I don't think people realise that it could happen to any of us and it's a much more common situation to find yourself in than you may realise."
Still, in some cases, it seems we may be right to be suspicious. In April 2006 a team of professional beggars in Croydon were found to be travelling from one place to another earning £80-a-day tax free simply by begging.
The police identified about 20 people, sometimes working in shifts, who were regularly working in the town centre, largely to fuel their drug habits. Last year, Westminster Council revealed that more than £300,000 given to beggars over a period of two months in London was spent on drugs.
Possible solutions to the problem
Don't give money to beggars
Cities such as Aberdeen and Nottingham have been urging locals to use collection boxes rather than giving money directly to street beggars. The aim of the scheme is to put off aggressive beggars by encouraging people to use the boxes, which will then be distributed to homeless charities.
Councils involved in the project believe that if you cut off the source of the income, people will stop begging, but charities such as Shelter and Crisis argue that people shouldn't be told whether they can or can't give money to beggars.
"Obviously there may be issues about where the money may end up, but every person is different and it may be the case that these people need help to get food," says Emma Guise at Shelter.
Keith Smith at The Big Issue agrees that it's not fair to tell people that they mustn't give money to beggars and encourages us to buy the magazine instead. "We see buying The Big Issue as a positive alternative. All vendors are earning a legitimate income and that's an important step for them moving away from the streets."
People become homeless for a number of reasons - many of which aren't their own fault. They require long-term support, rather than condemnations.
The Killing with Kindness campaign has been launched to reduce the number of beggars and make life easier for local residents. "We want to change people's behaviour, but not by attempting to punish beggars because they do deserve access to treatment and help. It's not easy because often these people are some of the most troubled and difficult people to assist, but everyone has different needs. New arrivals on the streets don't often know what's out there to help them," says Natasha Bishopp, assistant director of Community Protection.
Treatment, housing programmes and support
The Reading Single Homeless Project, which launched at the end of 2005, targeted beggars by diverting homeless people into treatment and housing programmes. The scheme resulted in a 52% drop in the number of rough sleepers in Reading town centre. Nine of the 20 people sleeping rough in the area were housed, nine underwent drug treatment and five no longer need treatment.
Crisis has come up with the idea of 'Service Navigators'. These are individuals who are allocated to a homeless person so that they have an individual port of call though which they can contact all the help, support and services they need.
Police around the country are tackling begging by handing out injunctions and anti-social behaviour orders. They hope it will prevent people sleeping rough, taking illegal drugs, and persistently begging within a certain distance of any cash-point or bank, or the town centre itself. Many beggars have been arrested and fined and offenders are warned that they'll face jail if they break the orders.
How can you help?
The majority of organisations agree that even if you don't have much empathy with homeless people, by supporting agencies that are working to find long-term solutions to homelessness, you'll actually be helping to reduce the problems in your area.
The Big Issue is an example of how the public can help people make their own way. Its message 'Working, not begging', epitomises the approach that the charity is trying to make and the way it's getting people into work.
The main message to us all is that ultimately it's up to you what you do with your cash. Often we want to see our money go directly to someone - it's a little bit like when you are at a restaurant and you put the tip in the waitress's hand rather than on the table, so as to avoid it being shared out, or worse, stolen.
Perhaps the next time you walk past a collection box you might want to donate your money directly to a homeless organisation or campaign. By doing this you could be helping agencies continue to support, train and house a large number of vulnerable people. Even if you can't afford to part with any money, simply by sparing some of your time volunteering through charities and local schemes, you could be an essential lifeline to those in desperate need of help.
If you're unsure about giving money directly to a homeless person, a welcome act of kindness could be to order an extra cup of tea when making your regular morning breakfast run before work. Although it's only short-term relief, a gesture such as this could make someone's day.
Written by Julia Pearlman
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