Picture yourself trying to get to sleep on a hard concrete pavement, whilst biting wind and rain swirls around you and the risk of abuse, arrest and even violence is ever present. Imagine thinking that this could go on for ever, that you have no-one and nothing left, and that only the instinctive fear of death is preventing you from taking that final step. So you do what half the country does before going to bed. You have a fucking drink.
This is how a life on the streets begins and as weeks turn into months routines and habits, bad and good, develop. You might learn where you can get free food, make allegiances, and hopefully genuine friends. Perhaps you spend a few nights, or even months in a nightshelter or hostel. Perhaps you get kicked out for breaking one of the endless petty rules like not being back in time for curfew or having a sneaky can of lager. Or you get beaten up, or piss off someone who might beat you up if you don’t disappear. Homelessness hostels are strange places, often full of tolerance and even love, but they are not safe spaces. All it takes is a vindictive charity worker or a violent argument and you can be back on the streets in a heartbeat.
Homelessness strikes when lives fracture, whether due to relationship break up, debt, eviction or domestic abuse. It often happens to those who have lived through harrowing circumstances – ex-squaddies scarred by war, refugees who have seen loved ones slaughtered, kids who grew up in care or were abused in the family home. At the heart of the problem however is money, and a society that values that above all else. Landlords refusing to accept tenants on benefits, eye-watering deposits to secure even basic accommodation, the chronic lack of social housing and ever more vicious benefit cuts – these are the reasons that street homelessness has risen to record levels over the last five years.
Homelessness endures because the scant social structures in place to prevent it focus on the symptoms – the perceived individual failings of homeless people – not the causes. Just like Iain Duncan Smith blames unemployed people for a lack of jobs, politicians and the charity bosses who suck up to them for funding blame homeless people themselves for their plight. To do otherwise would be to acknowledge their own role in creating the homelessness crisis. That is why in many major cities charities which claim to help homeless people are running anti-begging campaigns to smear them all as drug users or drunks and warning if you give them money you will kill them.
Ask anyone begging what they want, right there and then, and if they are foolish enough to be honest they will say money. That does’t mean they wouldn’t appreciate a sandwich, a cup of tea or a warm coat as well. But what they need is cash. They may want that money for drugs or booze, or they may want it to choose something to eat or wear themselves. They may be in debt, to someone you really don’t want to be in debt to. The propaganda on display in anti-begging campaigns insists that street homeless people do nothing but scrounge and shovel drugs down their necks, never stopping to eat, pay hostel service charges, buy a clean pair of socks or get a bus across town. Yet even the most chaotic substance users still need money for other things as well. Because they are real people, not grotesque cartoons.
The stark truth is that even someone who does beg to maintain an addiction will not be helped by no-one giving them any money. They will simply beg for longer to get what they need, whether that’s a bag of smack or three litres of White Lightening. If the begging is good, and the sun’s out, then once they have that they might beg for something for dinner as well. Or to be able to have their drink of choice rather than rough cheap cider. Or to buy their kid they hardly see a birthday present.
If the begging is bad that day then they will sit there all night, or resort to other means to get money such as crime or sex work. The faster they can meet the needs of their addiction – needs which are real, the street is no place to go cold turkey – the more likely they will have time or money to do other things. What they are really begging for, in many cases, is a bit of stability. A drug law reform poster that occassionally appeared on the streets of King’s Cross a couple of decades ago summed it up: “Heroin addiction is not hedonism but constant medication with a very powerful painkiller”. Until withdrawal symptoms can be medicated away then most people can barely roll a cigarette let alone try to sort their housing out, seek treatment, or get a fucking job. You are unlikely to kill someone with a drug or alcohol dependency with kindness by giving them a quid as hysterical homelessness charities claim. You are not prolonging their addiction, only they can do that. What you might do is give them a bit of space and time to do something else that day other than sit outside a shop doorway and risk arrest by asking people for money.
It is the presumption that homeless people cannot be trusted to be actors in their own lives that reveals the flaws embedded within charity. To make a decision about what someone needs, whilst ignoring what they tell you they need, makes giving all about the giver not the receiver. Charity becomes a way for people to feel better about themselves and for the wealthy to erase the guilt that comes from living in such an unequal and fractured society.
Few things expose this self-indulgence better than the horrifyingly named Crack + Cider initiative which was featured in today’s Huffington Post. This Hackney based pop-up shop was established so that people can help homeless people without worrying whether they will spend the money on alcohol or drugs. They can do this by donating the price of a coat, pair of gloves or umbrella, which Crack + Cider will then buy and give to a homelessness charity. And then it will probably sit in a store room for the next decade along with all the rest of the tat that arrives in charity fundraising offices that they have neither the resources or the will to distribute.
There is of course nothing wrong with buying a homeless person a coat. You can do that very easily without the act being mediated by charity. Go into a shop, buy a coat, give it to a homeless person. Fucking simples. Or join up with #opsafewinter who distribute supplies to homeless people directly.
What is wrong with Crack and Cider, apart from the obvious, is that this is not a project designed to help homeless people, but to help the urban middle classes feel better about homelessness. It does this by not only re-inforcing prejudices people feel towards the homeless, but also allowing them to buy their way out of any sense of personal responsibility for the problem. After all, there might be a poor person walking round now in a coat they paid for. If homeless people are still homeless after that kind of lavish generosity then they only have themselves to blame. Serves them right anyway for taking all those drugs.
In a gushing press release those behind the shop warn that even Kensington and Chelsea council say “giving to rough sleepers contributes to their early death”. There is no evidence that this is true because this is a political lie, used by a Tory council to justify forcing beggars out of one of London’s richest boroughs rather than providing the homes and services they need. A borough that could soon be selling off up to 97% of their socially rented homes. Better to blame people hooked on Special Brew for the homelessness this will cause than the Tory government’s housing policy.
There is no doubt those behind Crack + Cider are trying to be well-meaning – they are not taking any money from the project. The name they say is merely intended to stimulate a conversation about homelessness in that kind of wacky and ironic way that normal people who don’t live in Hoxton probably don’t understand. They say it was inspired by a beggar telling them that people didn’t give them money because they thought they’d spend it all on crack and cider. “Oh yah, that’s what we think too” they no doubt decided. Let’s set up a shop and call it something edgy. And so homelessness, as far as coat-buying Hackney hipsters are concerned, is sorted. Meanwhile down the road a beggar just got stabbed because they tried to pay off a drug debt with a pair of gloves and a fucking umbrella.
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