For many people living or working in large cities, being asked for money is an everyday experience. It can often cause feelings of distress, guilt and confusion.
What is the best way to respond to someone asking you for money? In 20 years of working with homeless people, it is by far the most common question I have been asked in relation to my work.
It is a sensitive subject. I want to avoid the polarization that often occurs between what is seen as compassion on one hand and cynicism on the other.
I do not agree with giving money to people begging, but I take this view because I don’t believe it actually helps them.
I am not advocating harshness, but rather a compassionate realism about the nature of the problems that surround those who beg.
For many people of faith, their beliefs can add a further layer of complexity to this issue.
After all, Jesus said, “Give to anyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30). And Jewish Scriptures state, “If anyone is poor … do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them” (Deuteronomy 15:7). And the Quran says, “You shall give the due alms to the relatives, the needy, the poor and the travelling alien” (17:26-29).
As a Christian, I believe that the overriding imperative is to love our neighbor and to be especially concerned for those in need.
But as I have seen over many years, with many hundreds of people, giving money to someone begging is not showing them love. And it certainly does not address their needs.
First, it is important to remember that the issue of homelessness and begging are related but are not the same.
Many of those who beg are not homeless, and the majority of homeless people do not beg.
Second, the link between begging and alcohol and drug misuse is well-proven.
For example, the United Kingdom homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 percent of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction.
Third, we need to recognize the untruthful manipulation at work in the exchange between someone begging and a potential donor.
Often the scenario presented is designed to place maximum emotional pressure on the hearer to do what is being asked – the money is needed to pay for a hostel bed, to get a hot meal or travel money to see an ill child.
Hostels and shelters for homeless people do not charge per night in this way. In my experience, the vast majority of the other scenarios presented are simply not true.
Fourth, success in gaining money through begging undermines the positive work going on.
I managed a hostel in Soho in London’s West End with homeless young people who could make very large sums of money from people leaving the pubs and nightclubs around Old Compton Street.
Often they would use the duvets we had given them as props to give the impression that they were currently sleeping rough, and we fought a losing battle in drawing these vulnerable young people away from the instant cash they could get from begging.
Despite the stories they told about needing it for food, virtually all of it would be spent on drugs.
Allowing untruthful and manipulative behavior to succeed in eliciting cash helps nobody.
In fact, it further imprisons the person in a world of deceit. In Thames Reach’s phrase, it can literally be “killing with kindness.”
One of the primary needs of homeless and vulnerable people is healthy, positive relationships built on truth and honesty.
And while we can’t have meaningful relationships with everyone we only meet briefly, we can seek to be as human as possible in all the encounters we have.
People who beg are not intrinsically bad people and we should avoid any language or tone that can appear harsh, cynical or dismissive.
None of these approaches will help; most of these people already feel bad enough about themselves and their situation.
We must seek to understand more fully the powerful and warping effect of addiction to drink or use drugs has on people. To that end, I would recommend the following:
1. When someone begs from you, look them in the eye when you respond and speak as confidently as you can.
2. If you have time, stop and talk with them. Ask them their first name and share yours.
3. If you have the time and money, offer to buy them a cup of tea, a sandwich or pastry.
4. Do some work to find out what shelters, charities or churches are open for homeless or vulnerable people in the area where you live or work to which you can refer people.
All of my experience and reflection on this issue makes me conclude that we should not give cash to people who beg. But we should never be judgmental or forget to treat them as humans.
It is often easier to give someone money than give 10 minutes of our time. But if we are prepared to talk and to give something of ourselves, you never know what difference it could make.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A longer version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.