It’s getting like New Delhi around here for begging and street sleeping. Unprecedented in my lifetime; on busy shopping days they line the routes like sitting Buddhas, creating eddies in the pedestrian traffic as it to’s and fro’s along the streets; and it’s rare that I can get through the town without giving away a cigarette, or some money for the bus, a cup of tea, some food, whatever. It creates a dilemma because while I want to help, even consider it a moral duty, to assist those in need; at the same time, I don’t want to be screwed over. The dilemma’s in part because begging and homelessness are two different issues: not all beggars are desperate and homeless; and equally, not all desperate, homeless people beg.
When it comes to vocational begging, you’d be hard pushed to beat the woman who recently appeared on my little shopping street. Swinging up the pavement on a pair of crutches with a squashed empty Weetabix box under her arm, she sat on the doorstep by the One Stop entrance begging money for milk for her cereal. The slight flaw in the ruse was that along with making a few quid, she ended up with about ten pints of milk which she tried unsuccessfully to sell to the shop across the street. She was obliged to purchase two carrier bags and hobbled awkwardly away, weighted down with cartons of milk. Undeterred, she returned a couple of days later, this time asking for money for milk as they exited the shop, thereby avoiding the literal interpretation of the question.
She’s a complete charlatan, amusing in a perverse kind of way, the problem is people like her can generate a cynicism among the giving public and the genuine people who do need help end up losing out.
When it comes to charity, the act of giving can call into question our own motives. Are we doing it in an altruistic sense? Or, to make us feel better about ourselves? The answer of course, is both. The poet William Wordsworth put it succinctly in his poem The Old Cumberland Beggar. A polemic against a group of politicians, lobbying the Government to tighten the vagrancy laws.
But deem not this man useless – Statesmen! Ye
Who are so restless in your wisdom, ye
Who have a broom still ready in your hands
To rid the world of nuisances…
While thus he creeps
From door to door, the Villagers in him
Behold a record which together binds
Past deeds and offices of charity
Else unremembered, and so keeps alive
The kindly mood in hearts…
Wordsworth has the beggar as benefactor; a custodian of kindnesses bestowed upon him. Rekindled when they next see him, the villagers remember their past generosity and it makes them feel good about themselves, resulting in both parties gaining from the transaction in a mutually beneficial way.
Of course, we have to assume that Wordsworth’s beggar wasn’t looking to buy some cans of strong lager and a bag of Spice with the proceeds – or the equivalent of. But even if he was, does it matter, when the gift has returned such a gift?
No homeless person ever aspired to sleeping on the street, but some have fallen further than others to get there.
I met Little Damien when I was in my late teens. He was a softly spoken guy with a genuine warmth about him. For over twenty-five years he worked as an auxiliary/driver for the NHS at various mental health units. Around fifteen years ago he had a breakdown, hit the booze and everything fell apart. In a short space of time he lost his job, his family, his house and his money. With no fixed address and unable, or incapable of claiming benefits he ended up destitute, living in a shared dormitory in a flea-pit hostel in the centre of town. The accommodation was nighttime only and each interminably long day was spent wandering the streets.
When I saw him again for the first time, I was shocked. His hair and beard were long and matted and his layers of mis-matched clothing were dirty and threadbare. He lowered his gaze when he saw me, and I ashamedly did the same. Embarrassed for myself and for him. We passed without acknowledging each other. It was a cowardly thing to do and I didn’t feel too good about myself afterwards.
Damien didn’t beg, he retained that level of dignity, but he would accept if offered. I last saw him a year before he died. We sat on a wall and smoked a couple of cigarettes. His eye had retained its softness throughout his tribulations. He was still the same kind, gentle man I’d met all those years before. There was no embarrassment between us, just acceptance.
He was found floating in the canal one morning in late February. News of his death brought on a lot of soul-searching from those of us who knew him, but ultimately, I at least concluded, we were as helpless as he was.
In another time there would’ve been safety nets for people like Damien in the form of care and social housing – as you would expect for a man who had worked and paid into the system throughout his adult life – but sadly that’s no longer the case. Having first forced our Councils to sell off their housing stock, the government then went for the jugular and hacked social services. The foundations that support us and the glue that binds it all together, the post-war blue-print for a fairer more equal society, has been erased and the effects are to be found in the doorways and underpasses of our towns and cities.
It’s no good simply building houses for people who can afford to buy them. We need to build houses so that people can have somewhere to live. To allow them that quiet dignity. In a rich country such as ours it shouldn’t be too much to ask.
As for land on which to build this brave new world – check out last month’s blog.
Next month: The Vanishing Elephant Trick