Saturday, 31 October 2009

A Tale of Three Cities

Today is Halloween. Out in the world below the safe haven of my flat, kiddies have been trawling the streets of London dressed as ghosts and ghouls ushered by protective carers. They compete with teenagers blagging little old ladies out of a couple of Mars Bars in payment for slapping on a £3.99 mask from the local newsagents. Some adults revel in the merriment of celebrating All Hallow’s Eve, but the more cynical amongst us see it as another opportunity for people to ask us to part with our hard earned money (or chocolate in this instance) or be subjected to trickery. Or, worse still, guilt.
Guilt is a feeling we are all subjected to on an almost daily basis. A dilemma all Londoners are familiar with is what to do when a homeless person asks you for money. To walk past totally ignoring someone sat on the pavement with nothing more than the clothes on their back seems callous beyond belief. A sad smile followed by “sorry” seems pathetic and patronising. The other option is to search your pockets for change and offer them a couple of quid.
There are several arguments against the latter. About 5 years ago a poster campaign was launched in London encouraging people not to do this. We were informed we were killing with kindness, funding their lifestyle rather than forcing them to seek support to get off the streets. But what if they are quite happy living on the streets and prefer the freedom it offers them to the institutional hostels dotted around the capital? Who are we really helping, them or Joe Public who finds people sleeping on the streets distasteful?
Others argue that all we are doing is funding their drug or alcohol problems, assuming that all the street homeless people in the UK are there for this reason. On the other hand you could argue that if we don’t give them 50p towards a rock of crack, they will get money for their fix through other means, whether it’s theft, prostitution or another underground career.
Others just don’t see why they should part with their hard earned cash for somebody who relies on others to get by rather than working 40 hours a week like the rest of us. I would suggest that is being a little short sighted about the reasons behind homelessness. But I will save that for another day.
So why do I bring this up now?
Whilst I was on holiday I was struck by the different ways people from different places beg, or try to get others (especially tourists) to part with their cash. In Paris on our first day, we saw three people try the following trick. They drop a “gold” ring on the floor and knock it with their toe, bend down to pick it up, examine it closely and ask the innocent bystander if it’s theirs. The answer is invariably “no”. At this point the ring is offered to the bystander for luck, and then a donation is asked for. (Having had this scam tried on me I politely gave the ring back and suggested they sell it.) It seems like a low reward scheme for such a complicated trick, unless once you get your purse out they snatch it or fish your mobile or camera out of your bag. Maybe I’m just too cynical, I’m not sure. But if you know, please educate me.
Whilst in Marrakech it seemed that everything we saw was an attempt to get money out of us relatively rich Westerners. As soon was we stepped out our riad it started; people misdirecting us to the family tannery in the hope we were in the leather business, shop and café owners calling out at us to come into their establishment to sample their wares, henna artists grabbing our hands trying to start a tattoo before I could say ten dirhams, men with monkeys and snakes tempting budding amateur photographers with their exotic (and petrified) animals - all at a price. And fair enough. We all have to make a living.
On the other hand are the people who haven’t quite kept up. In Paris elderly women slumped on bridges across the Seine pleaded with passers by for a euro or two. Younger men and women with children followed pedestrians down the Champs Elysees refusing to leave their side until they had succeeded on getting some cash. In Marrakech the homeless congregated outside mosques, sat in the dusty alleyways of the old town, hoping to catch someone in need of obliging a faith that instructs you to give to charity.
It struck me that in London begging is less intrusive and, well, in your face. Most people ask once and, no matter what the answer is, wish you a good day and turn to their next potential donor. Some people make a joke of it.
“Excuse me miss, but can you give me a tenner so I can go and get high on smack?”
Maybe this is because they have adapted to a city where people don’t have time. They don’t have time to hear your story, or to be continually pestered at the cash point, and they get irritable if someone tries to make them feel guilty. Much better to pretend you don’t really exist, be a good little homeless person and pretend it’s okay. And you’re much more likely to get a good old English pound out of someone who doesn’t feel pressured into giving it.
So, what to do? Who do we give to? If we fall for the ring trick or henna tattoo artist, our choice of who we help in this cruel world is taken out of our hands. If we give to the persistent beggar, the guy who tries not to be intrusive loses out. But even then, the hidden homeless trying their best to do things the government’s way are probably left worse off living on Income Support rather than the spare change of city workers falling out of the pub on Friday night.
It’s a tricky one. How do you get around it? I for one have gone down the route of giving to organisations I trust will use my money wisely to help those in need. A bit of a cop out maybe, and perhaps my money would do someone more good if they were go get it directly rather that a portion of it going towards campaigning and administrative costs.
This week I sat in a coffee shop with my boss on Euston Road to catch up after my leave. We were only there for half an hour but in that time two people came in and asked us for money. I did my usual little shrug and apologised and my boss did something similar.
“Can you believe that? Two people coming in one after the other! I’m surprised the staff didn’t do anything.”” she exclaimed.
And she had a point. It was unusual for London, I agreed. And most café owners will ask homeless people to leave before they are even halfway through the door. Heaven knows a heavy dose of guilt and discomfort makes your cappuccino taste sour.
Homelessness in London is a bitter pill to swallow, but those monthly direct debits and occasional purchase of the Big Issue make it go down a little easier. For me, anyway.

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