There’s no place like homeless

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A couple of weeks ago, I did something wrong. Or, more accurately, something that many people say is wrong. And I knew this at the time. But the alternatives felt wrong too – and so I did what I thought was, in the circumstances, the most compassionate thing. But still – maybe – wrong.

What did I do that was so wrong?‘, I know you’re wondering.

Let me tell you.

I gave money to a woman who told said she was homeless.

Yes, I know. So wrong. And let me tell you why I think it is.

 

So what’s wrong with giving someone in need money?

I’ve been told, time and again, not to give money to someone begging, for all sorts of reasons. Here are just a few:

  • She might be a professional begger and not actually homeless, an accusation based on articles such as this report 
  • She might use it ‘unwisely’ (based on my definition of wisdom, I guess) – becauseonce you hand the money over you have no control over how it’s used‘.
  • It’s patronising to give hand-outs (this is an argument I know I struggle with)
  • It makes her vulnerable to being robbed or attacked in some other way.
  • Giving money to the homeless helps nobody – in the words of Rita Panahi of the Herald Sun:

Giving to beggars is not only enabling criminality but it’s akin to watching Keeping up with the Kardashians. It only encourages them and prevents them doing something useful with their lives’. 

  • The Lord Mayor said not to (see here)

In response to these reasons, I’d say that only nine out of the 135 surveyed were found to be professional beggers, and so it’s fairly likely that they are genuine (and I think the figures of real homelessness has increased since then). Yes, there is a risk that she might use it ‘unwisely’ – I suppose – but 1) that’s fairly judgmental, and 2) there are alternatives if you think you might be causing harm (which I discuss below).

And in terms of Rita Panahi’s comment, I’m sure that most homeless people begging would love to be doing something more useful –  but may not see what she does (writing snarky, self righteous opinion pieces that demonise others) as falling into the category of ‘doing something useful with their lives’ either. ‘

More specifically, I believe many of these arguments are contrived, to avoid the suggestion that Waleed Aly made on The Project a few months back (see link):

“Here is a thought, maybe the reason that we are treating homeless people this way … punishing the homeless for begging us to help isn’t because we object to taking some coins out of our pocket. Maybe our real objection is the guilt we are forced to carry away with us when their poverty is rubbed in our face.”

 

So – could I have have done something more helpful?

When my eight year old daughter pointed out a woman sitting on the footpath, resting against one of the buildings near Parliament Station, what could I have done instead? Well, I turned to the advice on the Council to Homeless Persons’ webpage, and found the following advice:

  1. We should have talked with her. 

Yes, we should have. And – actually – we did. We saw past a women who, despite appearing to have limited possessions, and was wearing layers of dirty clothing, was someone who was still worthy. Who had a reason to keep going. Who had someone she loved in her life. Despite the cold, and the fact that she was trying to stay under wraps, she held onto the collar of her dog, who, she explained, was  the most important being in her life. But, as a dog owner, it was very hard to find accommodation. She explained her personal circumstances, and why she was now homeless. In response, we talked about what we had been doing that day, and she thanked us for stopping and talking, and noticing her and her dog. Incidentally, although she had a sign with a small box beside asking for money, she didn’t actually directly ask us for money. Nor, after we walked away, did she call out or follow us.

2. Instead of giving her money, we should have done something else.

To avoid the money being ‘misused’, we should have chose another option.

  • Donate to organisations that work with people experiencing homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction or domestic violence (note – we do this. This would not have helped her on the day though)
  • Buy The Big Issue or another publication that is sold by people experiencing homelessness (note – we do this. See comment above.)
  • Buy a gift card to a local coffee shop or supermarket
    (note – she didn’t want food. Whether this is true or not, she told us that she was experiencing health problems and struggled to eat. We could only take her at her word – or treat her as if she was a lier, I suppose. Plus, there were no coffee shops or supermarkets open that were anywhere near by).
  • Donate food or money to an organisation like Foodbank Victoria or Second Bite (yes, we could – and should. But this wouldn’t help her with her immediate housing problem).I have bought food for people begging in the past. I have also taken them in to coffee shops and bought them a meal. However − if it feels condescending to give money to people, it is even more so to try and make them eat when they are not ready to, and make them come with you. Plus, as the Council for Homeless People notes, ‘it might be their second or third meal for the day, and they have nowhere to store food’. It’s often not useful’.
  • I also found out that although it’s illegal to beg (see the link to The Project above), it is not illegal to give money to beggers. Again, from the Council for Homeless People’s site:There is no right or wrong answer – it’s really up to you. However, if you decide to pass on giving money making eye contact and talking respectfully to the person who is asking is a must. Sadly, many people who ask for money on the streets are verbally abused, robbed and humiliated‘.

So why DID you give her money?

After our chat with the lady, my daughter and I walked away and talked about what we should do:

  • We talked about what we would want someone to do if we were them.
  • We agreed that we would ideally want somewhere to live, and it was good that we give to certain charities.
  • We thought about options for finding accommodation, but couldn’t think of any (she had mentioned the problems she had already). I’ve since found an link to Salvation Army 24 hour service (I’m still not sure if she would be able to access it, or how much room is available), but for the future, I have this link anyway: here
  • We agreed that it is awful that there is such a shortage of options – I’ll come back to this point below – and really, that is the thing that is WRONG. So much worse that trying to help someone.
  • We agreed that, if we were in the lady’s situation, we would want someone to offer us help.

And so we went back. We had a bit more of a chat, and then we gave her the money we’d decided. And her eyes welled up and so, not wanting to embarrass her, we left, wishing her well.


So – what you did WASN’T wrong?

Well, yes and no.

In the short term, I think we did the right thing. We reached out to help someone who appeared to be in need. Maybe she lied to us – maybe my daughter and I could have been played for fools. Who knows? But I would rather be kind and occasionally proven wrong than constantly suspicious.

But – longer term. Yes, I believe that supporting people who need housing through giving them money is wrong. Because it doesn’t get to the bottom of what is REALLY wrong. And that’s the following:

  • I think it’s wrong that many people ARE sleeping rough, or without secure accommodation, or at risk of violence, or certainty of tenure. And some of them feel that they need to beg
  • I think it’s WRONG that children are not able to establish connections within school environments, which can be a significant impact on how their future plays out.
  • I think it’s WRONG that adults, who often have existing issues that have contributed to their homelessness, have the additional barrier to employment that comes from no fixed address.
  • I think it’s WRONG that those who are suffering are blamed – seen as people we don’t want around us − and those who look to help feel guilty for doing so.
  • I think it’s WRONG that people like me, who work in urban planning and policy development, and those who work in the associated areas of politics, housing development, architecture, finance, social support and so on, have not yet worked effectively together to agree on holistic measures to address the lack of housing options.
  • I think it’s WRONG that more effort hasn’t been given to fixing this problem. That solutions put forward have not been persisted with, and put into place (rather than some tinkering around the edges). I am appalled that it didn’t get more focus during the federal election.
  • I think it’s WRONG, in a country like Australia, where so many of us have so much, where so much investment is spent on making family homes larger, or buying second or third homes, or ‘investment’ properties off the subsidies of a taxation system that is not linked to ensuring this housing benefits the broader community, that we should have such a problem with homelessness and housing affordability.
  • I think it’s WRONG that, although there are many people struggling to make ends meet, many of us live comfortable lives. And of these, too many of us are so focused on making our own lives as comfortable as possible that we don’t see the sufferings of others, we don’t contribute to organisations that can help, we actively fight against measures that could help improve the supply of affordable housing (such as taxation improvements), and in fact, we actively avoid contributing financially within the existing taxation system (or by other means).

 

It IS wrong that I gave money to a woman who told me she was homeless.

Because it is wrong that there should even be a homelessness problem in this country. I believe there is no place for homelessness in Australia.

Addressing this problem – giving it a place as a national priority, and ensuring all people have a place to call home – should be the aim. Not shaming those who are homeless, or those who want to help.

 

I would love to know what you think about this problem we are currently experiencing – please share your thoughts in the comments to this page.

If you want to find out more about the current homelessness crisis, and some options to address this, the The Age / Sydney Morning Herald is currently running a series – see the following links (plus the many links within the post above):

Homelessness: what are the solutions to the problems on our streets? 

Who are Melbourne’s rough sleepers, really?

Homelessness crisis: Doors slam on places of last resort 

 

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22 thoughts on “There’s no place like homeless

  1. You didn’t do anything wrong. An act of simple kindness is never wrong. Yes, you can support charities. Yes, you can give vouchers- but what if it was medication she needed? Or money to use a laundromat? It’s patronising to assume we know better than the person does about what they need money for. Even if she spent it on alcohol or something- who are we to say she can’t? I give money to people on the streets because if they need it, I choose to believe them. It horrifies me that so many are without a safe place to live.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh – absolutely. I agree with you on this. I’ll edit this to say ‘only giving money and thinking that will solve the problem’ is wrong. Because this is something we need to address properly as well – we need to address the right fit everyone to have safe and secure housing – but there are so many contrived barriers in place to achieving this (I feel like those of us who’ve had anything to do with trying to address this have felt like we’re banging out head against a brick wall!) So good to hear how you reach out, too .

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  3. Greed is a huge problem and people feathering their own nests is part of this growing disparity between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. What many people don’t realise is that it is actually quite easy to become homeless. A couple of instances of bad luck can see anyone facing homelessness.

    This happened to someone close to me; she was a sole parent, the townhouse she was renting was sold so she had to move out. The week she got this news, she was also diagnosed with breast cancer. She didn’t have enough sick leave to cover all of her treatment so had several months with no income at all. Fortunately, a strong network of family and friends made sure she was ok, so she didn’t end up homeless. But she easily could have. And many don’t have that type of support which helped her through that awful time.

    I think any act of kindness is a worthwhile gesture, and while giving money to a person who needs it won’t fix things, it is small gesture that may offer some hope to the person, and will certainly bring some comfort.

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    1. You are right – it can happen so easily. And we all need to take some responsibility to address it. Hard to shift views though – I’m hoping that by personalising it, and others doing the same, we bring more attention and empathy to the problem. And we’ve also had people close to us very close to homelesss – like you, they’ve had support networks (including us) but so many do not x

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for writing this piece.

    I agree that it’s wrong that this problem exists here in Australia, and talking about it helps us acknowledge that fact. I hope that lady and her dog are OK tonight x

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  5. Whether it’s just a friendly smile to someone having a rough day or going out of your way to help a stranger, these small acts of kindness are what helps me keep faith in the human race. Keep being the beautiful person you are, maybe it will catch on 😉

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    1. Thanks Mel! (I’m so encouraged by other people’s actions too – it’s great to hear of some of the things some people do, fairly small like ours or some of the bigger actions, isn’t it?) There is a lot of good in the world – it just doesn’t always come to the surface – so it is good to share at times 🙂

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  6. Kindness is never wrong in my opinion. I often give a dollar or two to the homeless and I have no issue with that. I also help out at a shelter, give money to Mission Australia and I’m not opposed to stopping for a yarn from time to time. It’s completely up to them what they choose to do with the coins I give them, I have no issue whether it’s for buying a drink or a sandwich. I’m nobody’s Big Brother and just as I’m entitled to spend my money on whatever I please, so are the homeless. As for the professional beggars – good on them for getting out there and earning a crust, I say. Is that ridiculous? Maybe, maybe not. x

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    1. I think the problem with the professional beggers was that they weren’t homeless and they were pretty aggressive / intimidating (and they tarred others with the same reputation). Having said that, there were so few of them. In terms of never being a bad thing – someone on my home page tried an argument against beggers along the lines of ‘have you been to India’ (where the volume, and the way some children and adults are scarred or worse to tug at your heartstrings) – but it’s such a different situation here. I love the fact that you stop for a chat too – I understand from not only the reaction we received but from homeless services that this recognition of people as people, worthy to have a conversation with, might be as significant as direct financial help. Good on you! x

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    1. I actually lied – sort of – with the Big Issue. I don’t always buy it, because I find I don’t read it. But I do always give to the vendors as if I was buying it (rather they then sold it on to someone else). And it’s such a brave thing to do, and so important for self confidence for anyone who hasn’t worked for a while, that I think it’s great to support it. And although I find it sad that there are so many people in this situation, I’m really encouraged that it is getting more attention (and I hope that leads to action!)

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  7. I must hang my head in shame. The truth is, I feel uncomfortable; absolutely MY problem and I own it….just being honest here. I really should do more. I most certainly would never ‘look through’ someone and pretend I cannot see them. Sometimes I give; a lot of the time I don’t. A thought provoking article.

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    1. Oh, don’t get me wrong – I feel uncomfortable too! It was mostly because of my daughter that we stopped. I feel guilty – partly because I’m in a comfortable house and they are not, and partly because, well, I’m not quite sure, possibly I am put in an uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to help or not?? And I also feel frustrated – because I don’t think the measures I’ve been involved in have had any effect (having said that, I’m not in a role which is leading on homelessness being solved. But still). Anyway – if we can continue to raise the profile, share a bit of kindness (which was reciprocated – I thought the conversation was lovely, as did my daughter), then that’s a start, I think?

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  8. I have never once thought giving money to someone that appears to be in need is wrong. I love that your daughter was with you and you openly discussed with her the situation you were faced with. Education and open discussion with children gives hope to everyones future.

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    1. Yes, I was very proud of her 🙂 As for whether giving money is wrong, there are a lot of people who do feel this way (and to a limited degree, I can understand – sort of). What I don’t understand is those who think there should be no assistance whatsoever – that is completely beyond my understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Enjoyed reading this and definitely made me think. Recently watched a documentary in regards to homelessness overseas and how many of them can go days without speaking to anyone and the lonliness of it all. How wonderful she was able to have a conversation. It is easy to assume that the money will be used for something like drugs or alcohol but we have no idea of what leads so many down that path, there are so many reasons why someone is homeless and it isn’t because they are a bad person. She could have been pulling the wool over your eyes or it could have made a huge impact on her life. Somtimes I think it is worth taking that chance to help.

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    1. That’s interesting about the documentary – but, thinking about it, not surprising (sadly). And I agree with your comments about taking a chance – who are we to make assumptions?

      Liked by 1 person

  10. What a great read. It is so overwhelming the homeless issue in the city at times isn’t it? So hard to know what is the right thing to do. I guess it really just comes back to the fact that you are giving selflessly and without judgement, then it shouldn’t matter what they use the money for. And hey if they use it for drugs, them maybe just maybe they might actually get some sleep in that freezing cold! xx

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  11. It is such a huge and complex issue. Every time I put my key in my front door and my head on the pillow at night I think how fortunate I am to have a home, somewhere to be and belong. My son volunteers with Orange Sky Laundry – they provide a clothes washing facility to homeless people. Once the clothes are in the wash, the volunteers have a sit and chat with the homeless. He has learned from his chats about the various reasons that people become homeless and also that there are those who are desperately trying to get out of that state and there are others who are content to be on the streets. I am a money giver. I can spare $2 to be taken for a ride. The other night my husband and I were in the city and approached by a guy who wondered if we could spare some change. My husband gave him a couple of dollars and he thanked us and said we were the only ones who had acknowledged him that night. Made me feel sad. So I think, yes, volunteer, support homeless charities, donate goods to keep people fed and warm but I still find it hard to not throw a couple of coins to someone on the street.

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