Why I will never walk past someone begging on the street again
As the Simon Community NI says that we are in the midst of a homelessness crisis, Belfast-born Joe Cushnan, reveals how on a recent visit back to the city he was shocked at the number of people he saw begging. But, he asks, can we really just pretend they’re not there?
I caught up with a piece in the Belfast Telegraph this week and learned that there are around 16,000 homeless people in Northern Ireland and 1,000 vacant homes owned by the Housing Executive, albeit 1% of their stock.
On one level, it's easy arithmetic to solve at least a small part of the problem. On a more complicated level, there are various reasons why these homes are empty; for example, they need repairs and some are allocated already, awaiting new tenants. Some of the empty homes might be tangled up in frustrating administrative delays.
But the statistics do help me to understand something I experienced on a recent trip home to Belfast, something that shocked me and that has bothered me ever since. I will get to that shortly.
Recently, I read that actor Richard Gere had expressed the view that we should give willingly and compassionately to beggars and not be deterred by the possibility that our donations would be used to buy alcohol and drugs.
Gere explained his rationale that the moment of compassion that comes with giving money heals both the giver and receiver and that moment is more important than trying to wean people off addictions in the longer term. He was criticised by charity leaders for what was described as "luvvie drivel" spouted by somebody rich and famous, and one charity campaigner suggested that Gere's approach was tantamount to handing money directly to drug dealers. Now, I am not rich or famous or a luvvie but I find myself leaning towards Gere on this one. Humanity is about helping those who can't help themselves.
I was born and raised in Belfast. I left in 1976 to pursue a career in England but I return home frequently. My jaw drops at the progress being made to develop the city. The Belfast I left in the brutal 1970s is a changed place, and mostly for the better. Mostly.
The reason for the shock on my most recent trip was this. During the course of an afternoon and the following day, I was approached in the street by eight people asking me directly if I had any spare change.
Now, I have visited many cities and towns over the years and I am used to people in doorways asking for money. Most of the time I have ignored them pretending to look at something interesting in the sky or across the street, anything to avoid eye contact. But to be approached directly, human being to human being eight times, by five gaunt young men and three gaunt young women, was far more than I have ever experienced anywhere. It bothered me. What was going on? How could such a vibrant city allow such things to happen?
I thought about how I should approach begging from this point onwards and why homelessness is tolerated in this day and age.
I have lots of stuff and probably more possessions than I need. When I look into the eyes of someone who appears to have next-to-nothing or nothing at all, what am I supposed to do? Should I stand there and lecture the person asking for money?
"I'm sorry. I have a pocketful of change but if I follow the experts, I mustn't give you any of it because you might spend it on alcohol and drugs. Now, you may only be in need of a cup of tea, a bowl of soup or a sandwich, but the experts caution that I shouldn't take the risk of handing over cash. I suppose that means that while you obviously need some assistance, I am not allowed to trust you to spend wisely any money I give. Sorry. But please take comfort that I am on my way to the charity office to make a donation that will help you later on." I exaggerate, but really? Is that humanity in action?
I read somewhere that charities helping the homeless would rather we donated money to them to fund ongoing welfare programmes, and I can understand that thinking. But when you're in the moment, standing a foot away from a desperate soul, on your way to meet friends for a nice lunch and a drink or two in a pub, what is your gut telling you to do? If you are a diehard opponent to funding beggars, that's up to you. But if you feel it is only right to hand over a few coins, then I know what I should do, what I must do and what I did do in the few days I was home in Belfast. My gliding past and avoiding eye contact days are over. I can't be expected to grill the person begging on how life has dealt him or her a bad hand. I don't need to hear their life story to help me make a decision to assist them or not.
The eight young people who approached me on the streets of Belfast and several others I saw in doorways or searching litter bins or shuffling along the streets carrying bags stuffed with whatever they could scrounge that day got to me.
We are all involved in something here, something that requires properly funded assistance to eradicate the problem once and for all. Yes, that may be interpreted as too simplistic, the equivalent of luvvie drivel.
In Belfast, in a rare moment of sunshine during a few showery days, I gave a young girl a pound coin. She thanked me and hoped that God would bless me forever. I moved a discrete distance away and sat watching her, but more importantly watching the dozens and dozens of people scurrying by.
No one, to the best of my knowledge in a quarter of an hour, gave her anything. All of them may be right and I might be wrong, but I did what I did, not much, but I did it. I didn't feel smug or self-important. I felt sad and hoped that God would bypass me and bless her. Soppy? Luvvie drivel? Maybe.
It seems to me that Northern Ireland's politicians, the actual working ones, should stop wasting time and money discussing non-essential things like flags, marches, bonfires, whether they like each other or not, and other secondary issues. Playing power games is not helping those eight kids I saw on the streets of Belfast.
Isn't it amazing how governments can find eye-watering amounts of money for all kinds of stuff, except, it seems, for the provision of shelter (social housing), food and clothing, basic needs for those who genuinely could do with a helping hand, along with that other thing that doesn't always emerge readily, the aforementioned humanity.
Come on, Belfast. You're better than this.