As I was leaving my department building at the end of last term, I was surprised to find two homeless men standing over my bike in deep discussion.
Having already had a bike stolen from the St. Giles area, I was naturally suspicious of their attention. I asked them sharply what they were doing. One of the men, answering frankly, told me that my bike was not secure, and that all someone needed to do was release the front wheel and walk away with a moderately valuable frame. He went on to tell me that certain components of my bike were ideal for a project he was putting together with “reconstituted” parts. “This is my job,” he shrugged finally –it was clear that this was more about survival.
Handing out spare change to beggars comes with its own set of problems. Bob Price, Leader of the Oxford City Council, has said that alcoholism and drug abuse are two of the issues which make dealing with homelessness so complicated. Many of us are instilled with the belief that money handed over to rough sleepers will invariably be spent on unhealthy addictions. But, in Oxford just as elsewhere, it is still essential that homeless people can hope to make a small income from donations from the public.
For one, the 56 beds at O’Hanlon House, the shelter operated by Oxford Homeless Pathways, are almost always full, according to Chief Executive Lesley Dewhurst. The shelter is even prepared to offer floor space when temperatures drop below freezing for three nights in a row. But with austerity cuts of up to 40% expected to hit very soon, it is likely that the growing number of homeless people in Oxford will be forced to pay for accommodation elsewhere.
Figures show that there were 19people sleeping rough in Oxford in November 2013, compared with 12the previous year.
Monetary handouts are a short-term solution which can only be effective when employed in tandem with the work of charitable organisations, offering support to those overcoming addictions or illnesses.
But, as Mark Johnson of the Guardian (a rehabilitated drug user and former rough sleeper) argued in2012, every donation by a member of the public to a homeless person helps to prevent a crime.
If we are feeling charitable enough to hand over a few coins to a less fortunate individual, do we automatically have the right to dictate how that money should be spent? Whether it goes towards a hot dinner or heroin is not necessarily any of our business: we can still be pleased that we have alleviated an individual’s need to resort to theft to meet the same ends.
Back in 2000, the Labour government’s ‘Change a Life’ campaign, which discouraged members of the public from making small hand-outs to the homeless, was condemned as a failure by major charities including Shelter and Crisis. Oxford City Council’s policy makers seem oblivious to this failing.
Giving directly to the homeless will not turn their lives around, but it will prevent them from turning to crime until they are ready to seek the social support they need.
While giving money directly to the homeless might feel like a moral imperative, it is actually counterproductive. Giving money will often merely contribute to prolonging rough sleepers’ terrible situation.
Homelessness has recently made headlines in Oxford – Cherwell recently reported that the number of rough sleepers increased by more than 50% since 2012, and the City Council recently pledged a £235,000fund meant to ensure that no one spend two consecutive nights on the street – but it is clear that this problem is far from anything new.
Writing on this same issue in 1891 Oscar Wilde came to the same conclusion; people who give directly to the homeless “very seriously and very sentimentally set themselves to the task of remedying the evils that they see. But their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease.”
The reality is that the way to help the homeless is not to give money directly to them. There are several reasons for this. Over 65% of American homeless people, according to a US Department of Urban Housing and Development report, have chronic drug or alcohol problems. Last year, the anti-begging campaign “Your Kindness Could Kill” attended Freshers’ Fairs at Oxford and Oxford to encourage students to give money to the Oxford Homeless Medical Fund instead of to those begging on the streets.
Seeing as the homeless generally have no practical way to save money, most money earned will be spent very quickly, and often on the same drugs or alcohol that stop homeless people, or those who work with them, from improving their situation. Giving money to the homeless is an admirable act, but studies show that improving their situation comes not just from giving them money, but from the resources and funds with which measurable improvements can be made in their lives.
Anything from new clothes, to rent money, to job or skills training will show a genuine improvement in their living conditions, and contribute to getting them off the streets. Giving money risks doing the opposite.
But one of the most insidious effects of giving money to those who beg is how it incentivises people from improving their lives.
We generally don’t give to beggars indiscriminately, but based on the perceived level of their need. They are more likely to let their appearance or situation deteriorate, in the knowledge that our sympathy will increase. It’s a vicious cycle.
As Wilde says, “it is easier to have sympathy with suffering than with thought.” The way to help the homeless, if one is serious about it, is to donate to a homeless shelter, a homelessness charity, or even volunteer to help, yourself. Giving directly to the homeless is merely a salve on our own consciences.
It makes us think that we’ve given our requisite pound for the day and that we can forget about the social ills around us. But it is counter productive. Though well intentioned, giving directly is part of the problem, not the solution.