“He’ll only spend it on drink”

In Books, Current Affairs
April 9, 2006

Spent an inordinate amount of time on the tube today staring at a poster for the Killing with Kindness campaign. The general idea is to persuade people not to give money to the homeless, because “you may be helping them buy drugs that could kill them”, but instead give the money to charities which work with the homeless. I don’t know what I think about this. On one hand, I can see the point. Firstly, homelessness charities do amazing work and deserve to receive large quantities of our money. Secondly, homeless people are often in such a state of emotional distress that giving them money might be like putting a bottle into the hand of an alcoholic friend who’s just broken up with his girlfriend and lost his job. It might be what he wants, but he’s in no state to judge.

On the other hand. Well. For one thing it seems to me an encouragement to inhumanity. Living in a big city like London, it’s all too easy to start ignoring other people’s requests for help, to shut down and stop seeing the dirty, bundled-up people begging at Tube stations as people at all. And yes, it would be better if we were as open with one another as children and if, seeing someone in pain, we were to kneel down and talk to them, ask them about their lives and how we could help. But most of us are too afraid, so the exchange of a pound coin or two stands in for it. It’s a way of saying: I see you, I know you’re there. This is more about the soul of the giver than the receiver. Who are we if, when we see someone asking us for something we could easily provide, we always walk on?

And the other thing is how patronising this campaign seems to me. I understand, I really do, that the people who made it are trying to do good, and certainly do more good on a daily basis than I manage in about 10 years. But maybe it’s for this reason that they might not understand how easily the campaign fits in with most people’s prejudices about the homeless. That middle England statement “don’t give him money. He’ll only spend it on drink.” Honestly, if you gave me money, I might spend it on sweeties, alcohol, Playstation games and other things that probably aren’t good for me and of which you might not approve. We all do things that are bad for us. I very much doubt that not giving homeless people money will stop them from taking drugs – and I believe it’s just possible that there are other ways to get that money which we might find even more unpalatable. As far as I can see, this campaign will probably reinforce the impression many people have that the homeless are scum, that they deserve to be looked down on, that they have no control over their actions and are therefore both stupid and dangerous. But maybe I’m wrong. I hope so.

Something which certainly does not reinforce prejudice about the homeless is Alexander Masters’ brilliant book Stuart: a life backwardsI’ve been meaning to mention it here for weeks because it’s the best thing I’ve read this year, it’s intelligent and funny, moving and wise and full of opinion-altering insight. Despite being about the life of a homeless man, it is strangely not depressing at all, but simply clear sighted. This is a book that ought to be on school reading-lists and handed out for free to commuters. Perhaps it could be serialised on tube posters too, to counteract the unpleasant aftertaste of Killing with Kindness.

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