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12th December 2018

The homeless epidemic needs empathy, not cynicism

Oliver Storey believes that avoiding giving money directly to homeless people is neither moral nor helpful. He asks us to reconsider common misconceptions of the homeless population
The homeless epidemic needs empathy, not cynicism
Photo: quinntheislander@pixabay

It is estimated over 4,700 people slept outdoors in 2017, a 15% increase from 2016 and the seventh consecutive annual increase for the UK. The growing homeless epidemic is very apparent when you choose to notice it.

I can understand if you do not give money to the homeless all the time. My understanding begins to falter, however, if the reason you withhold your money is because you believe you are helping them somehow. This reasoning is not only immoral but it fuels a cynical and inhumane attitude towards the homeless community.

There are a number of assumptions that are made about the homeless community. Many are unsure whether those on the streets truly are rough sleepers, or merely ‘beggars by trade’. In fact, there were 307,000 people categorised as homeless in the UK in 2017. That’s 1 in 200 people in temporary accommodation, ranging from a hostel to a friend’s sofa.

While not all beggars are categorically rough sleepers, they still deserve your sympathy and help. They are among the most vulnerable people in our society.

A common assumption is that the money you give will go towards drugs. Jon Glackin, the founder of Street Kitchens, a grassroots charity, re-iterates, “if you can afford to give money to a homeless person on the street, do it”. He emphasises that the proportion of drug addicts on the streets would be minimal.

And yet, what if they do buy drugs? Who are we to judge? Perhaps it is even kind to allow them to escape and numb the pain and humiliation of their life. What is more, to stop taking drugs whilst on the streets can be doubly painful due to the excruciating withdrawal symptoms you can suffer. It is too easy to dictate how others should live from a position of comfort and relative ignorance.

Withholding your money will not cure an addiction. To stop an addiction the addict must believe in and want the alternative more than the next hit. Drug addiction and begging are usually last resorts. Bad luck has knocked some down so many times that they have given up. It is incredibly unlikely that anyone would choose to live that way.

Cutting the only source of income is not a solution, nor does it help anyone to get off the streets. It makes trying to save for a night in a hostel harder, winters colder, and bodies thinner. For drug addicts, it could make them more likely to turn to criminal activity.

The Salvation Army claims that giving money to beggars keeps them trapped in a cycle of drug abuse and money should go to charities instead. Charities themselves, however, are often considered not to be very reliable sources. How much of that money will reach those in need? Donating directly to the homeless is the only way to help those who are unreachable by charities.

While charities are stoic in their provision of housing and care, a single gap in the process of rehabilitation can let someone slip back to the streets. Eight years of Tory austerity has reduced the number of homeless beds by 20%, while homelessness rose, and gutted the social and mental health care that was desperately needed.

It is the role of the government to provide the homeless with the mental and social care needed for rehabilitation into society. Whilst direct donations to the homeless may not be the best solution to the wider problem, neither is giving the same amount of money to a charity which props up government cuts.

Giving money to homeless people will not get them off the streets, but that is not our responsibility. We have a moral responsibility as human beings to care for those less fortunate than ourselves and to help how we can by making their life more bearable.

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