Bitching about the ethics of giving money to the homeless helps no one

West Midlands police has been censured by the region’s police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, and told to remove “insensitive” posters. These come with the message “Your kindness could kill” and depict a crime scene body outline, full of coins: giving money to rough sleepers could help them buy drugs that could kill them.

Homelessness is a tragic, multifaceted issue, which isn’t helped by posters such as these. Some homeless people drink and/or take drugs, but not all of them do. Nor does everyone care if they do. My take is: who am I to judge how a homeless person chooses to cope with their appalling situation? Besides, when you’ve given someone money, it’s theirs – you’ve no right to lecture them.

There are issues with this stance, too, not least because it exists in a convenient liberal blind spot. Giving money and walking away means that someone like me doesn’t have to deal with what could be the fatal consequences of enabling a hard drug habit. Off I skip down the road, my bleeding heart fully engorged and happy, and leave the potential mess for others at the hard end to clean up. Suddenly, my tolerance doesn’t look so pretty.

So, yes, street homelessness is complicated and doomed to remain so. However, the West Midlands poster campaign was still wrong, not least because it seemed to pander mainly to the mindset of people whose snap reaction would be: “Don’t give to rough sleepers – they’ll only spend it on drink and drugs.” Even if this were true, there’s such a simple solution that it barely needs mentioning – as in, if you’re truly concerned about how homeless people might spend the money, just give to a charity instead.

Indeed, with so many homeless charities available, this fretting about what a rough sleeper “might do” starts looking decidedly weird. It’s loosely comparable to people raving about how children would “only spend money on sweets and toys” – instead of donating to a children’s charity. Basically, what’s the issue? If you prefer a particular option, just shut up and take it.

Instead, certain types seem to relish all the prurient speculation about what the naughty homeless people would do with the money. While I could be wrong, it makes me wonder whether people who’d use such mean stereotyping and, above all, make such pointless remarks might be a tad unlikely to log on to a homeless charity website and donate money there instead. I can’t help but suspect most of these people would have no intention of helping the homeless, directly or indirectly – they just enjoy bitching about them. If this in any way applies to you, perhaps we could make a deal. I’ll go away and think about the downsides of my approach and you think a bit harder about yours.

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