Go easy with that Christmas spirit. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Think. When a poor man comes in sight, don’t immediately reach into your pocket for change, but prepare to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.
“Man” in this context is not gender-specific, of course. The poor man who came in sight when I was walking through central London at the beginning of Advent was a woman, a homeless thirty-something, with a thin, raddled face and bad teeth. I asked her what the problem was. She told me she’d just been discharged from hospital, where she had been treated for pancreatic cancer. She was now in remission, she said, and wanted somewhere to sleep other than
I gave her a pound and asked her why she was homeless. Money, she said. She wanted to get into the hostel down the road but couldn’t because she didn’t have the money – £18.60 – to secure herself a bed. What about social services? She couldn’t get any benefits, she said, until she had accommodation … but she couldn’t get accommodation until she had the benefits to pay for it.
Moved by a spirit of wheedling self-interest – “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” – and by a worm of guilt, I offered to give the woman the £18.60 if she would allow me to accompany her to the hostel and watch her hand over the money. To my surprise, she accepted.
Once at the hostel, however, things got tricky. My homeless friend said I could not accompany her to reception because that was for women residents only. She said she would go upstairs and hand over the £20 I had given her, and then return to me with the change and a receipt.
Off she went, and a few minutes later returned. Alas, there had been an unexpected delay and we’d have to wait while longer…
I’d had enough. Ignoring the women-only warning, I went upstairs to reception. The people there were charming, but seemed confused by the story I was telling them, as I was myself. My homeless friend now began to wriggle. She had to go to the loo, and with my £20. That was the last I saw of her. I left the hostel a few minutes later, angry and sweating.
Next day, after making a few follow-up calls, I discovered that I’d been taken, not unreasonably, for a fool. The woman was already in residence at the hostel, I was told. She did not pay the £18.60 for a bed because she already had a bed.
Does the poor woman also have pancreatic cancer? She may, but it seems more likely to me that she has a crack cocaine habit. That would account for the bad teeth and raddled appearance. Whatever the truth – she may, for example, be both a crack addict and a cancer victim – she needs love in the first place, not money. Money can so easily make matters worse. The £20 I gave her meant very little to me, but it was more than enough to buy a rock of crack cocaine.
Many of those who work with and for the homeless say that you should not give money to street people but encourage them to use the charities and agencies that offer practical help. Some at least of the money given to beggars – especially if they are young and British – goes on drink and drugs. My Christmas resolution therefore is not to give money to the street people, except, perhaps, in the case of old folk and the disabled, and maybe also Bulgarian and Romanian women, who have little choice but to beg. Instead of giving money, I’ll tell the beggars about the charities and agencies that help the homeless, while at the same time trying to be cheerful, positive and friendly.
There are many such charities. The two I know a bit about are The Passage and the St Vincent de Paul Society (SVP). The Passage is located a little more than a stone’s throw from Westminster Cathedral, in an area rich in beggars. (A walk from Victoria Station to the Cathedral can set you back £5.) At the Passage the homeless can find food, showers and laundry facilities, as well as access to computers and help with applying for jobs.
The St Vincent de Paul Society, meanwhile, has its headquarters in the Elephant and Castle. This winter the SVP is distributing 12,000 “Vinnie Packs” among the homeless, about half of them in London. Each pack contains thermal gloves and socks, toothpaste, toothbrush, and (especially useful) an information sheet about the agencies and charities that can provide them with help.
If you want to help the homeless this Christmas, why not give money to the Passage or the SVP, or both, and, while you are at it, consider becoming a volunteer? But don’t be a fool.