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) – because ‘once 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:
- 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. ‘
“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:
- 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):