No choice at all

Got a drugs problem? Had a nervous breakdown? Fleeing from
abuse? Lost your job, family, home and self-respect? Head for
Westminster and Camden. Here service providers are queuing up to
give you all the support you could want, in ways you want, so you
can regain control over your life. Social workers sit around on
clouds, plucking at harps, flicking through back copies of
Community Care. Here safe, affordable housing is
plentiful. There is no poverty. There is no need to beg.

If paradise had indeed arrived on earth, the campaign by
Westminster and Camden Councils to stop people “killing with
kindness” by giving money to street beggars might make more sense.
That is not to say it makes no sense. No one would want to
exacerbate the difficulties faced by vulnerable people. Money
donated may well be spent on drugs. And no one condones aggressive
behaviour. However, although you may not kill with kindness, you
can maim with misunderstanding. The campaign is based on a
massively simplified view of problems and solutions.

If people persist in opting for passivity and self-destruction when
they are perfectly capable of taking responsibility for their own
lives, others might legitimately query their role in supporting
such (in)action. As New Labour puts it: “a hand up, not a handout”
is what’s required. Unfortunately, withdrawing the handout does not
constitute a hand up. Unless people have the choice to go upwards,
the handout can be all that stops the downward fall. Street begging
is probably not the first choice of most young homeless people who
have been forced, rather than have chosen, to leave home, those who
have left local authority care, or anyone else. Yet that is where
too many end up. So, can street beggars be choosers? And, if so,
why do they choose such a demeaning, dangerous activity?

Westminster and Camden seem confident they have all the services in
place to make street begging unnecessary. Given the range of
reasons why people become drug-misusing beggars, and the long-term,
multi-faceted support required to turn lives round thereafter, this
is impressive – if true. Instead of handing out money, perhaps we
should distribute leaflets about services. Penniless, but equipped
with helpful new information, perhaps street drug addicts will head
off to take up a programme at the local detox centre. Well, they
can try. Waiting lists can be over three months. So begging and
prostitution are the only options.

To extend the demonisation of beggars to those who give to beggars
is not the answer. True, motivations can be mixed. We might want to
help them. We might get a kick out of our own goodness, moved by
some sentimental vision of ourselves and the objects of our
charity. Or we might just happen to have loose change weighing down
our pockets at that moment. It is unlikely people give because they
believe begging is a great idea to be encouraged. Nonetheless,
attitudes can be contradictory. It’s fine if begging is off the
street and on the telly, sanctioned by celebrities and
institutionalised by charities. Of course, paradise is a long way
off. Many charities do vitally important work. And giving money to
street beggars is not the action of the zero-tolerant, determined
to finish them off for good.

Wherever it occurs, begging may help meet the short-term needs of a
handful, but is not the way to prevent disadvantage, or promote
long-term solutions. Needs are often preventable. They are created
by others’ lack of awareness, hostile or patronising attitudes,
inaccessible environments, and patchy public services. They are
generated by the destructive actions people take, towards
themselves and others, when there appears no other escape from
intolerable situations. If the better-off were prepared to donate
via the tax system then people at risk, or those experiencing
disadvantage, could have the dignity and security of rights to
support. But, successful prevention provides no emotive images to
pluck at heart strings and wallets. And taxpayers seem strangely
reluctant to pay more taxes.

The challenge of bringing about fundamental changes to prevent or
address complex, entrenched problems can be overwhelming. Whoever
you are – a drug-addicted street beggar, a councillor wanting to
clean up the streets, a responsible citizen concerned to minimise
disadvantage – the temptation will always be to choose the quick

Sally Witcher is a freelance consultant and researcher.
She was formerly director of the Child Poverty Action

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