A Modern Moral Dilemma

One of the most common moral dilemmas that most of us face on an almost daily basis is that catch 22 question of whether we should give money to those begging on the street (e.g. here & here). Begging is that rare moment in modern society where we actually look in the face of those in need who are asking us for help. Live in an area long enough and you probably know and recognise those faces sitting by the cash machine, on the bridge, by the station, on the park benches. We all know that we should help, but how?

On the one hand, if we give someone money or spare change they could buy something to eat. On the other hand, the money could be spent on drugs or alcohol which wouldn’t actually help their situation at all. But who are we to judge and assume that anyone who is homeless or begging is necessarily a junkie or alcoholic? I imagine most of us happily fritter away a good portion of our incomes on alcohol, chocolate bars, cigarettes and countless other luxuries that we don’t need; why should we expect those who are less fortunate to lead a perfect, stringent, spartan lifestyle? So we end up stuck between the desire to do the most good and not wanting to be judgmental and condescending.

Luckily, there is research into homelessness and recommendations are available. A group of charities and support services in London have created the website Killing with Kindness which argues that giving to beggars causes more harm than good. They cite data which shows that giving to beggars may just prolong cycles of substance abuse and addiction, instead they recommend that people give money to charities working with the homeless and vulnerable. This does not mean that every homeless person has some kind of drug habit but that if you give your money to a homeless charity of your choosing you can be sure that you are making a positive contribution and not possibly furthering an ongoing problem.

So where can you give money? Shelter and Crisis both offer advice and provide services to the homeless, as well as campaigning on the issues of homelessness and housing. Crisis also offer shelters over the Christmas period. There are many local hostels and homeless charities providing shelter and/or food. If you want to get an idea of who they are and what they do Intelligent Giving provide listings and information for charities in the UK and you can search by category or region. There is also the Big Issue magazine and the Big Issue Foundation. The Big Issue magazine appeared in 1991 providing work and an income as a stepping stone out of homelessness. Founded in 1995, the Big Issue Foundation furthered this work by raising money to provide further support services for the homeless.

My personal advice: Always be polite when asked for money, but save your spare change for an organisation that can really put it to good use. You could also consider volunteering for an organisation in their shops, in the kitchen or in the office. Alternately, a friend’s mother likes to carry fruit or some other food around to offer. Oh, and there’s the less immediately rewarding but also worthwhile tactic of directly asking our government to do more on this issue and give everyone the chance to be safe and healthy with a roof over their heads.

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4 Responses to “A Modern Moral Dilemma”


  1. 1 Gareth October 1, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    I’ve had the same dilemma and come to the same conclusion (based partly on advice by organisations like the ones you mention); and I wholeheartedly support this advice.

    That said, I don’t think we’ll ever be free of homelessness, however much work is done by charities and the government. A certain proportion of humanity is simply not capable of maintaining themselves and keeping a roof over their heads; some people just can’t cope with the world. Sadly, a certain proportion of these people can’t cope with institutionalised living either — and there’s not much else of any permanence that can really be offered.

    This is not at all to say that we shouldn’t try to help homeless people, or do all we can to reduce the number of people living homeless; just that homelessness of some sort is probably inherent to settled society.

  2. 2 Clare October 1, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    True. I should maybe have phrased that as access to facilities or shelter. I also feel like I’ve grossly neglected to talk about the actual reasons why people end up living on the streets, but maybe that’s a topic worthy of its own blog post.

  3. 3 cath October 2, 2008 at 12:38 pm

    The Big Issue is always worth buying (tho not necessarily reading!). It’s a genius scheme and gives people a stepping stone out of homelessness while preserving dignity as much as possible!

    If people are sitting outside a supermarket when you’re going in, you can sometimes ask them if you can get them anything while you’re there.

    Something I’ve never done myself, but if you’re asked for money for a cup of coffee, you could always actually go and have a chat in the nearest coffee shop … this one does require that you’ve got the time to spare on an impulse though!

    There used to be a voucher scheme in Edinburgh – you could buy vouchers for £1 which people could take to a drop-in centre in the Cowgate to exchange for a hot meal and/or clothes/footwear as required. But the last i heard was that the Council had scandalously stopped providing whatever funding it had previously given, and as far as i know the scheme basically couldn’t continue.

  4. 4 grammarking October 7, 2008 at 4:19 pm

    When I first came to Edinburgh I was astounded by the number of homeless people on the street, and the attitude of many people towards them. Back home I knew of maybe 3 or 4 in the town centre. Several times across the bar I’ve seen ultra-conservative businessmen dismissing homelessness out of hand saying very cynically that the only reason people beg is because they can make a decent living out of it, and basically ‘re too lazy to get a job.

    One of the few criticisms I have of humanists is that we’re not very good at organising charity work. I’d like to do more work with the likes of Praxis and the Care Van, but find it difficult with them being such explicitly Christian organisations. I know that’s a terrible thing to say.

    I’d also like to encourage people to buy the Big Issue. I’ve been a supporter of the foundation for a long time (in fact I think if I hadn’t thrown them all away I’d have a pretty much seamless collection for the last 3 years, although it’s a different edition in Scotland), most of them bought from the same vendor in my local town centre. It’s not only good for the vendor, but it’s usually an excellent read on a wide range of topics. Go buy it.


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