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.