Growing up, I got used to being ushered past homeless people and Big Issue sellers. “Don’t make eye contact,” people would say. And so I didn’t.
A few years back, not long after I met my boyfriend, we were walking down the street and there was a homeless man sitting in a doorway. I think he must have asked if we could spare some change. My boyfriend happened to have an envelope in his bag with some money in, and handed it over without a second thought.
The gesture, to my 19-year-old self, seemed sweet but naive. “You shouldn’t do that,” I said. “He’ll probably just spend it on alcohol.” My boyfriend just shrugged, but I never saw him give money to a homeless person again.
I feel pretty terrible about that now.
My present-day self is more compassionate. I’ve since come to believe that giving money to someone in need is always the right thing to do, and that what they spend it on is no concern of mine. And yet my actions have mostly failed to match up to these beliefs. For the most part, I continue to hurry past with my eyes cast down. I vowed ages ago to stop doing this, but the excuses and justifications seem to rear their ugly head every time.
I don’t have enough coming in right now as it is, I can’t afford to give money away.
I don’t have time to stop.
They might be dangerous.
What if they’re not really homeless?
It’s terrible – I would never say these things out loud, and I know full well that they’re not valid excuses. And each time I walk past some poor soul huddled in a doorway, guilt knots my stomach. It doesn’t feel good.
I was walking in town last week after nightfall when I saw a homeless man sitting against the wall of a building. People were rushing by, and he was invisible. I nearly became one of them.
I was already halfway past him when he said, half-heartedly, “Do you have any change?” And finally, something clicked in my brain and I stopped. “I think I do actually,” I said. I remember the roughness of his palm as I pressed the coins into it.
“Thank you, darling,” he said. “That’s so kind.” There was real warmth and gratitude in his tone.
As I walked away, I was surprised to discover that helping felt even more heart-wrenching than doing nothing. I had seen his humanity, and now all I could think about was how he’d probably have to spend that cold January night on the street. The money I’d given him would allow him to get some food, but it couldn’t give him a home. And tomorrow he’d have to suffer the same indignity of being at the mercy of strangers’ kindness all over again.
I’d like to say I never ignored a homeless person again, but I can’t. I went shopping with my flatmates the other day, and there was a lady sitting outside the supermarket. When I went to return my trolley, I thought about giving her the pound coin. But then the mental excuses started up – I had a lot less freelance work than I needed, and anyway, I couldn’t give money to every homeless person, right? It wasn’t until later that I saw the absurdity of that. Yes, my income is less than I’d like right now, but I have savings and I could get a job if I needed to. I wouldn’t really have missed that pound coin at all. But to her, it could have made a big difference.
As a vegan, I’m always preaching about showing compassion to other sentient beings, and that includes other people. It’s easy to forget that.
Most of us, myself included, are unlikely ever to be at any real risk of homelessness. I have a supportive family, loving partner, and amazing friends who would help me out if I was struggling. At worst, I have the savings to buy a camper van and live in that. And I have a good education which should allow me to find work quite easily. But some people, often through no fault of their own, just don’t have these advantages.
The UK is one of the richest countries in the world. There is no good reason for us to have people sleeping on the street. Countries like Finland are aiming to eradicate homelessness.
What I find the most thought-provoking is that in tribal societies, the concept of homelessness is often non-existent. In these societies, people look out for each other and no-one falls through the cracks. And yet by our standards, these people are all incredibly poor. So maybe it’s a lack of community which is the real barrier to change.
There is a strong culture of ‘every man for himself’ in some Western countries, including the toxic idea that everyone has to earn money to justify their own existence. The extortionate cost of housing and huge inequality between rich and poor don’t help either. And then there’s the fact that there are far fewer jobs than unemployed people, and unemployment benefits are stingy and degrading. Jobseeker’s Allowance is a maximum of £73.10 a week, barely enough to cover the rent of a small room in a house share in many areas – and then there are other living expenses to consider. Plus recipients face losing their benefits if they can’t prove that they have applied for enough jobs – whatever ‘enough’ is. Then there are the horror stories of people who are seriously ill being declared fit to work and losing their disability benefit.
There is a huge social stigma around homelessness which makes many people reluctant to do anything to help. The aforementioned idea that if you give rough sleepers money they’ll only spend it on drink or drugs is an example of this.
Then there are the spikes that have been installed outside certain buildings to prevent homeless people from sleeping there. And have you ever seen those benches which have armrests in the middle for no apparent reason? That’s to stop homeless people sleeping on them. The inhumanity of these gestures is sickening. I also find it troubling that you now have to pay to use many public toilets. Where are you supposed to go to the toilet if you have no home and no money?
And yes, many rough sleepers have developed addictions as a way to cope. But I heard one former homeless man on the radio make the argument that giving money is still the right thing to do. He pointed out that those with addictions will find a way to get those needs met no matter what – and if they don’t have money, they may resort to dangerous or illegal methods to come by it.
Additionally, it’s not our job to police what someone does with the money once we’ve handed it over. When we give money as a birthday gift, for example, we are giving it to the person to spend as they choose. If they spend it in a way we disapprove of, it doesn’t mean we were wrong to give them money.
I figure that at least if I give someone money, they have the option to pay for food or maybe shelter for the night, which is better than having no option at all.
There are many amazing charities working to tackle homelessness, and supporting them is a great thing to do. But I don’t think it’s a substitute for helping those who need money right now to be able to feed themselves. So I’m vowing, once again, to try to be better.