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Street homelessness: The dangerous appeal of the street magnets

Amongst the front-line staff at Thames Reach, those undertaking outreach work on the street or managing our hostels for rough sleepers, there is always a sense of relief when the Christmas period is behind them. 

Christmas is a time when we can expect a surge in support from the public and, concurrently, there is also an increased risk of people dying on the street. This is because so much of the public’s seasonal largesse is focused on giving to people who are visibly present on the street and, in order to be in the position to be a recipient, those who have moved away from rough sleeping will often return to the street at Christmas. 

In late November, a Big Issue seller I follow who is active on Twitter tweeted that he had been forced to move from his usual pitch outside a supermarket because an intimidating former rough sleeper, now housed, had requisitioned it for the lucrative Christmas period.  Outreach workers meanwhile pay special attention to the vulnerable, often drug dependent people who have accommodation but will be spending time back on the streets at Christmas because the begging is so rewarding.

Thankfully it seems that this year there were no deaths on London’s street over Christmas though, in Birmingham, there was the extremely sad death of Paul Williams who died on the pavement at Birmingham’s bullring shopping centre, despite the fact that, at the time, he had somewhere to stay. According to the thoughtful and moving Guardian article, Paul's father Bob feels strongly that people should not give money to those begging as it funds addiction, a view that we wholly concur with at Thames Reach.        

Before Christmas we were involved in a furious debate on the issue of begging following the publishing of an astonishing on-line article by the New Statesman. The writer, activist Matt Broomfield was unequivocal in his view that the public should give unconditionally to people begging.

‘Don’t just give to people who ask you directly, but to the guy with his head in his hands and a Styrofoam cup on the ground in front of him. Give to the woman who’s blind drunk. Give to the guy with meth-rotted teeth. Give to the spice addict who can’t look you in the eye’.

It was an article that demanded an equally uncompromising response, for which the New Statesman was willing to provide a platform and I took the opportunity of writing a rebuttal. Before the piece was completed however, there was an additional, grotesque twist to the debate. A distraught colleague alerted me to the fact that the image used alongside the article, that of a young man, arm outstretched holding a cup, was of a former homeless man who she had supported. He had tackled his heroin problem and been clean for years, living successfully in a council flat before starting to use again for a short period before tragically overdosing and dying. 

I included this shocking and distressing information in my original piece for the magazine.  Regrettably, the New Statesman was not prepared for this bitter supplement to the story to be included though they did, with alacrity, remove the picture of the young man. I have re-produced below the original, unexpurgated version intended for New Statesman.    

The debate which continued through a discussion involving Matt Broomfield and me on the Daily Politics programme led to a number of other interesting articles, including a particularly moving piece by Jon Kuhrt, Chief Executive at the West London Mission, on his cousin’s addiction to heroin.

I hope that as 2018 progresses we will see fewer deaths of homeless people on our streets. But until we face up to the fact that the disproportionate supply of food, clothing and hard cash given out on the street are magnets, inexorably drawing people back to a place where the risks to their health and well-being are immense, I fear this horrible cull will continue unabated.  

Of course, homeless people are in desperate need of food, clothing and money along with access to proper healthcare, support to address addictions and settled, safe accommodation. But where, how, when and in which combination support is given is critically important. Getting this wrong really can make things worse, and in the context of the brutal existence which is street homelessness, for worse, read dead.

A shorter version of this blog was published on-line by New Statesman on 3rd November 2017

Giving money to the homeless isn’t generous – it can condemn them to death

Alan slept rough in south London. Toni, an outreach worker from my organisation, Thames Reach, met up with him most weeks. Over time she broke through his innate suspicion and painstakingly built up his trust. Sometimes, with her help, Alan would move into a hostel, but never for more than a few weeks. His life was chaotic, dominated by heroin dependency which was remorselessly destroying him. Toni’s attempts to help him enter drug treatment were always thwarted by his mistrust of services and, she suspected, fear of failure.

Toni also had to contend with the countervailing forces drawing Alan back onto the street. The most powerful of these was the magnet of begging. Sitting outside Lewisham station, Alan was able to beg enough money in two hours to buy a wrap of heroin. There was never a shortage of local dealers prepared to do business with him.

Rough sleeping is an incapacitating existence. It took its toll on Alan’s health which, one winter, deteriorated alarmingly, culminating in Alan’s sudden, tragic, death from pneumonia. He died at his begging pitch, his body cradled in the arms of another rough sleeper.

Thames Reach’s outreach teams work across London every night of the year. Last year we helped 1,237 people find accommodation and end having to sleep rough. It’s challenging work. Almost 2,000 of the rough sleepers met and assessed by outreach teams working throughout London in 2016-17 were drug dependent, with heroin, crack cocaine and spice the dominant substances.

Outreach workers get to know homeless people very personally through nightly contact. Their resolve to help people off the streets is driven by their knowledge that sleeping rough can kill. Equally, an understanding of the impulses that lead people to beg means that outreach workers' responses to the tossing of coins into a proffered cup ranges from bafflement and resignation to outright anger.  The facts speak for themselves. On occasions when the police arrest people for persistent begging, more than 70 per cent routinely test positive for crack or heroin.

Many homelessness charities, including Thames Reach, have supported campaigns asking the public not to give to people begging. Instead, we have encouraged donations to be made to local charities or, where a person is believed to be sleeping rough, for a referral to be made to the StreetLink website so that the person can be assisted by an outreach team. These are primarily public awareness campaigns.

Yet the public’s propensity to give money to people begging seems undiminished. Too often, we witness situations where former rough sleepers are making progress in tackling an addiction, but are sadly overwhelmed by the temptation to return to the street to beg for drug money. It is perverse that as Christmas approaches and the largesse of the public swells, we must be especially vigilant because of the increased risk of overdoses among people begging on our streets. When we say to the public, “your kindness can kill”, we mean it.

Recently the New Statesman website ran an article entitled “Why you should give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people”. The glib nihilism of this piece, which singled out Thames Reach for criticism, was shocking, encouraging the kind of mindless giving that works so powerfully against the efforts of outreach workers. Its casual bleakness was best illustrated by the approval given to the sentiment, spoken by the founder of User Voice, a charity staffed by former addicts, that “if your money funds the final hit, accept the person would rather be dead “.

And then an additional, bitter layer was added to our shock at the callousness of the article.  A distraught colleague contacted me because she recognised the young man in the picture accompanying the on-line article, the image showing him sitting on the pavement holding a cup, arm stretched out in supplication. He was someone she had supported and who had successfully stopped using heroin and settled into a flat but who started using again, overdosed and died. To quote her directly: ‘He would be mortified as he relapsed for such a short amount of time before his death after being in recovery for years. He wasn’t street homeless either, he died in his own council flat of an overdose, so this article is terribly ironic’. To its credit, New Statesman rapidly removed the picture.

To witness the death of people through overdoses, knowing they have bought the drugs primarily with money raised through begging, as we have at Thames Reach, is devastating for our staff. Indeed, the article was a kick in the teeth for all the committed teams from homelessness charities working directly with street homeless men and women who will not acquiesce to the inhuman fatalism which assumes there is some kind of death-wish gripping people begging to buy drugs. 

It doesn’t have to be this way. 54 of my colleagues are former homeless people, some of whom were previously drug or alcohol dependent. They are now impressive role models, transforming lives for the better and are particularly strong advocates of our position on giving money to people who beg. We must help many more people to escape homelessness, complete treatment programmes and address the complex underlying issues that have led them to become drug dependent. There is help, there is hope and, most importantly, there can be life.


John Hilston said…
Always help the poor as much as you can, because there will be a time when you needed help and it will also be there for you, somehow.
meet and greet manchester
seek for help said…
Every time, when I see homeless people, I try to help them somehow. In such moments, you realize, that life can totally change and you will even notice.
I think that we should help homeless people, and our government must take control under them, it will be fair in the society.

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