If you want to give money to beggars, then that's nobody's business but your own
Charities tell us giving cash to people on the streets is harmful, but Fionola Meredith says it's a personal decision
It's supposed to be the season of goodwill to all men - gifts, generosity and general ho-ho-ho - but we mustn't give a festive fiver to people begging on the streets. According to homelessness charities like Depaul and the Welcome Organisation, most beggars are addicts and giving them money may fuel their addiction. And besides, a great many street beggars - an estimated 80% - are not actually homeless anyway. "Giving to people who beg is not a benign act without consequences," the charities say.
The implication seems to be that to offer cash is irresponsible and possibly even immoral, effectively hastening a vulnerable person's downfall while wishing them a cheery, heedless 'merry Christmas'. Better to keep your cash in your pocket, or donate it to local charities instead - that's the message.
The age of the Good Samaritan is well and truly over. Instead, we are supposed to outsource our instinct to help to the appropriate authorities, the people who know better, so we can walk on by with a clear conscience.
But especially at this time of year, there's something poignant about seeing a person sitting on the pavement, head bowed, begging cup in hands, when everyone is rushing past with stuffed shopping bags, and the streets are bright with Christmas lights. The contrast between such blatant conspicuous consumption - this frenzy of ritual spending we're all supposed to indulge in - and the solitary figure on the ground is stark, and sobering.
That person is as much a human being as you or me. And the fact is that we simply don't know his or her circumstances. Maybe they are homeless, maybe they're not. Maybe they are a drug addict or an alcoholic, maybe they're not. Their own particular predicament isn't actually the point. The point is that there is a person in need. Nobody demeans themselves by asking strangers for cash without being in a dire and desperate situation.
And so what if you give them a couple of pounds and they spend it on drink? I don't begrudge them that. If I was reduced to begging, I can understand why a little bit of alcoholic comfort might seem like the most desirable thing in the world at that moment. Perhaps it might feel like the only thing that makes life worth living.
Unhealthy, counter-productive, self-sabotaging - yes, perhaps. But what gives any one of us the right to judge? You can't lecture or compel or punish someone into sobriety. And I'm far from convinced that depriving beggars of the ability to buy alcohol or drugs, by telling the public to stop giving, will result in them obediently trotting off to the appropriate charity and taking the approved steps to turning their life around. People's difficulties are far more complex than that.
Many addicts on the streets of Belfast are desperate for assistance but there aren't enough programmes to help them and the ones that do exist are under-resourced and overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the problem.
Once you start distinguishing between the deserving and the non-deserving poor, you're immediately in the territory of the moralising Victorian do-gooders, who treated destitute adults like wayward children, deciding what was best for them, whether they liked it or not. Have we not moved on from those days of officious paternalism?
Last summer, when Depaul and the Welcome Organisation launched their 'Begging for Change' campaign urging people to stop giving money to beggars, one powerful dissenting voice came from Belfast Experts by Experience (BEBE), a group for addicts and former addicts. "If the purpose of this campaign was to further ostracise, criminalise and dehumanise addicts, it has succeeded beyond its wildest dreams," BEBE said.
It argued that removing a benign income stream from addicts who are begging will only serve to force the addiction problem further underground and push people towards prostitution and crime. "Some of us at Belfast Experts by Experience have used drugs in the past. Some of us still do. For an addict, sitting on the street begging is much less harmful than risking a descent into a life of crime or sex work."
Deciding whether or not to give a beggar money is an individual choice. It is a matter of conscience and personal judgement. Amid the rush and bustle of the street, it is a quiet, private interaction between two human beings, one of whom is in need. Nobody else's business.
It's up to you what you give, and it's up to them how they spend it.