Saturday, 5 April 2014

Charity and Giving Part 2: Giving to the Homeless

Nowadays it is easier to be charitable than in previous ages.  Nowadays it’s not too tricky to set up a standing order with one or more noble causes and more or less forget about it, except when you need to feel a bit virtuous, and it can be recalled and held up for yourself as an example of what a Good Person™ you are.  The virtue of charity has never been easier, but I do wonder whether that means it’s less virtuous.  After all, while it’s costing you money, it isn’t costing you more precious commodities such as time, or effort, or really even thought, once the initial setting up is done.  Please don’t think that this is a denunciation of the charitable standing order, far from it; it’s a wonderful thing.  However, I think that possibly there is more to be done.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that one shouldn’t give money to homeless people begging in the street.  “If you really want to help,” we are told, “you should donate regularly to a homeless charity (a charity for the homeless that is, not a charity without a home).  After all, they’ll only spend it on drugs and alcohol (the homeless person, not the charity).  And if you absolutely must do something for them, buy them some food and/or a hot drink.” 

This seems like good advice, and for a long time I followed it.  It seems very sensible and pragmatic and so forth, taking into account human frailties and human faults.  However, that doesn’t stop the twinge of guilt as I walk past beggars, trying to ignore them or shaking my head and muttering “No, sorry,” as I pass.

It has increasingly seemed to me that while it is no doubt excellent advice to give money to homeless charities, since these are largely attempting to deal with the long-term problems, the root-causes and to help people out of the cycle of homelessness and joblessness, it leaves the short-term problems somewhat by the wayside.  Now obviously many also run soup-kitchens and shelters; I’m not for a second claiming that the short-term needs are ignored altogether, but simply by giving to a charity still seems to leave something lacking.  Instead of completely ignoring them, I have in the past tried to do the right thing, and buy them some food, and that has helped a little.

It has been argued to me in the past that it is wrong of us to assume that “they’ll just blow it all on drink”, not that you can really blame them for trying to escape the misery of their lives for a little while, short-term and counter-productive as it is.  It is a cynical and judgemental assumption, and if our positions were reversed, I would resent it.  The very act of buying a homeless person some food, while no doubt appreciated, highlights the fact that you don’t trust them enough to just give them some money, and that in itself must feel like a blow to the gut.  It is very easy to be cynical, to be pessimistic, to assume the worst of other people, and I daresay that it is often (even usually) entirely justified, but I have increasingly come around to the idea that everyone should be given the benefit of the doubt. 

I do not wish to live in a world in which I assume the worst of everyone, or have the worst assumed of me.  I shall be idealistic, and assume the best of everyone, and no doubt I will often waste my concern and my money; it will be put to those lower uses that discourage other people from giving.  That is the choice of the person concerned, and I cannot and shall not be held responsible.  However, sometimes it will be used to buy food, or pay for shelter, and that person’s life will have been improved ever so slightly, for just a short space of time, and if that only happens once in twenty times, I will call it a fair rate of exchange.

So when it comes down to the question of giving money to homeless people, or donating to charities, my answer is: why not both?

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