Crouch down for a chat? Or did they ‘bring it upon themselves’? How to react to homelessness

Let me tell you a secret: I know the best way to deal with those charity people who accost you on the street. (Let’s go ahead and call them chuggers, shall we?). It works so well I’m a little loath to share it for fear of weakening its impact, but here we go.

The main problem for a pedestrian to overcome is that of chuggers’ strongly held starting position in the interaction, i.e. that you ought to be generous (we could dwell some other time on why they hold this position so strongly). You are obviously (they guess) someone with means. They want to present to you some unfairness or injustice, and ask: will you share what you have? If you won’t, what’s wrong with you?

There are all sorts of possible reactions, and I’ve tried a few: eyes-down ignore, just saying “sorry” and hurrying past, diversionary tactics like asking them a question before they can ask you, and so on. But all of them are unsatisfactory. Some people say they feel fine with doing these sorts of things, but I don’t believe them. Avoidance, apology or retaliation all leave you a bit bruised in some way, even if very lightly, and they leave the door open for debate, for the chugger to argue back.

Because their premise is strongly held and strongly presented, you can be fooled into thinking you have to agree with it, and be apologetic. It is a rhetorical ploy, a variant of the trick question. It reminds me of the sorts of lame, usually homophobic riddles kids used to pose at school, e.g. “If you got on the gay bus, would you get off” (i.e. with the double meaning of exit the bus / kiss someone). You could be tricked into giving an answer, but really you need to deny the question itself.

So the answer is to take charge of the situation and, in so doing, take the power out of their premise altogether. What I do is I make eye contact with them, sometimes touch their shoulder or make some other imploring and/or assertive gesture, and I say Sorry, I can’t stop, but good luck. It’s the last bit that does it. It says, I’m definitely on your side and really regret not being able to help. They love it, and it takes nothing from me to do it. I assure you this little charm trick works 100% of the time. Once I even got one chugger to get the others to leave me alone on my second pass down the street, on the basis that I was clearly a Good Guy.

Just to be clear, I don’t do this because I’m a horrible person, I do it because I want to go about my daily life without being pulled into a debate about whether or not I’m a horrible person. I routinely give to charities, but they are charities that mean something to me, my donations to which I have given a lot of thought about before committing to. I’m not very likely to give to a cause spontaneously.

My method only really works to diffuse that situation because pedestrians and chuggers are more or less of equal status. There is an acceptable way to abstain. It isn’t nearly so simple to handle requests from another group of people on the street who ask for money – beggars, rough-sleepers and so on, who we will collectively call People On The Street, or POTS (coincidentally close to POTUS, in case you find the coincidence as pleasing as I do.)

Before we start, let’s deal with the #firstworldproblems accusation. Should we consider the guilt of middle-class, working people as not a “valid” problem, because it’s the problem of the privileged? No – people feel it so it’s worth consideration, just like any issue that causes conflict in peoples’ brains. Playing off different feelings against each other to find out which is more valid is a race to the bottom.

So what should we do? How should we handle the situation? Is there a way to keep our pride intact and diffuse the guilt like with the chuggers? It would certainly be useful if so; handling requests for assistance from POTS is very common and it does seem like there are many POTS these days, particularly in a northern UK city like mine.*

Let’s deal with the questions one at a time. Firstly, should we give to POTS when they ask for change? I don’t think there is a good answer to this. It’s down to personal choice, in the face of a rather complex risk/benefit analysis. It is clear that there are potential good and bad outcomes for the POTS to giving or not giving: perhaps they will use the money for drugs and harm themselves, perhaps by denying money you will cause them malnourishment or you will prevent them rebuilding their lives, and so on. Perhaps the truth is that a small amount of change is unlikely to make much impact either way, so you should do what you like? My current approach is that I am unlikely to give money, unless I happen to have found that money in some fortuitous way (e.g. found on the floor), but this clear a rather arbitrary rule I’ve set. I may share food if I am currently eating some (especially if it’s something gluttonous) and very occasionally I might offer to buy food. I say ‘sorry’ as I pass, though I know that helps no one.

The second, and more tricky issue for people like me is how to handle this stark situation of inequality when it is in your face like this. How do you avoid feeling like, or feeling like you looklike, “a bad person”?

I think this mental conflict often leads people to harden into one of two positions of attempted resolution. It probably hasn’t escaped your attention that the world appears to be increasingly polarised, and these two positions will look familiar in this paradigm. For the sake of illustration, we could characterise the views as The Guardian versus The Daily Mail, although this Guardian article’s comments shows both the positions in more detail than I can summarise here.

1)     Overly sympathetic: make friends with the person. Give them money every time you see them. Crouch down on the floor to have a chat with them. View every rough sleeper as a victim of society’s cruelty.

There are a few problems with this. Why choose to do something to help this particular person just because they’re right in front of you? Why ignore the fact that some rough sleepers would require enormous time and resource to get them out of the habits they’re in? Often this sort of approach biases people towards the – dare I say it – cooler homeless people. The ones drawing pictures or writing poems or carrying a cat and so on. It’s dishonest, in the same way that it’s dishonest for people doing humanitarian work to say they are ‘friends’ with people they’re helping. Friendship only really works where there’s equality of status, and there isn’t equality between you and the POTS; they are talking to you partly because they want you to give them some money. And then, worst of all, comes that callous moment when you get up and go back to your nice life and leave them to theirs. On that basis alone, there is no resolution and certainly no basis for you to feel pleased with yourself as some people do. To convert guilt into smugness helps no one but you.

2)     Overly mean: it’s obviously these people’s fault they are in this mess. If I give them money, they’ll just get off their faces on spice. I bet some of them are professional beggars who live comfortably with big TVs (because it always comes down to the size of the TVs). Why should I help these scroungers? And why should I let them anywhere near my royal family?

My initial response is that this is plain unkindness. People on the street are humans. They are usually in a bad way. If they are intoxicated, this is probably a reflection of their desperate situation, not a sign of moral weakness. Couldn’t you find room for some sympathy? Maybe try a little thought experiment where you imagine it’s your friend or family member in this situation. Are you still so hard-hearted?

I think this view betrays a great misunderstanding about what makes a happy life – from people who probably do not have happy lives themselves. I think the suggestion is that if you help the “scroungers” they will be dependent and live in houses with big TVs, chuckling about how they have duped us (see also the arguments made about prisoners in allegedly hotel-like prisons). But a life of dependence isn’t a good life. We need autonomy to be truly well-off. It is hard to do, I acknowledge, but if you see people appearing to enjoy life on benefits a bit too much, feel sorry for them that their bar for satisfaction is set so low, and that they don’t really know what a happy life is.

I think this sort of thinking suggests a life centred around what you have and what you deserve, and around constantly comparing yourself to others. The idea of who is deserving does not hold much water. A perfect meritocracy would only make sense if there was a level playing field in terms of opportunity and social mobility. But there isn’t. There are rich people who can screw up a lot and be fine, and poor people who get unlucky and end up homeless. If you’re not happy with what you’ve got because of a genuine reason, such as not being properly valued or paid by your employer, then direct that ire upwards, not downwards. If you think that, on reflection, you are comfortable enough, then I think you can be generous in wishing people on the street could get a little help.

So both of these attempts to resolve our guilt – or the challenge to our pride that POTS present – are unsatisfactory. What should we do?

I say reject guilt. That’s the wrong response. The stark inequality is not directly your fault, it is a failing in society to ensure that everyone has access to a basic minimum standard of living. Instead, hold the sadness or the anger about the inequality and injustice and leave it where it is, unresolved. Be polite and considerate to street people because they are people, too. Acknowledge them as much as you acknowledge anyone else around you, or perhaps slightly more if you feel that this might make them feel a bit better about their situation. Give them freebies if you feel like it, but don’t feel obliged.

Keep your feelings and the knowledge of the inequality inside you like potential energy. You may never use it because you may never get the chance, but it’s there if you need it, informing how you act, the decisions you make, the discussions you have with other people. It is a spring unsprung, and should the moment arise it will uncoil itself, hard.

This conclusion isn’t something many people manage to reach, because it’s difficult to reach. But if you can, then you may well have calibrated your moral compass. It can’t necessarily get you to where you want to go, but it can show you the way.

*There is a POTS who I’ve now ended up saying hello to every morning, just because we recognise each other. He was recently photographed by someone for a local photo competition, the rules of which said anyone in photos should either have consented to appearing, or be anonymous. The photo included him from a distance, but it was quite clearly him, and therefore not at all anonymous, and I am certain he would not have consented. I felt this was wrong, and that use of his image for some sort of artistic intent was indicative of confused and hypocritical thinking around homelessness. I suspect the photographer felt they were raising the issue of homelessness for us all to think about, but in actual fact the man’s privacy was violated, and the photographer’s actual motivation was to try to win a photo competition, exploiting the man in the process.