I recently come across an article by a friend titled: “Why Pope Francis is wrong about begging”. In it he argues why he does not give money to those who beg, however plausible, and took issue with the Pope who recently made a statement that we should give, even if the money were not to be used appropriately (e.g. spent on fueling an addiction like alcohol or not spent on the purpose being claimed by the beggar). My friend, more than most I know, has earned the right to offer an opinion, having gone out of his way to practically help the poor over many years. But it did get me thinking. I would like to set out three scenarios that I came across during the week, just past, and pose the question: “what would you do?”
I had a conversation with someone who regularly tours the Southend High Street, feeding the homeless. He has often remarked on coming across those he labels “professional beggars”, who see begging as a means to quick gain, who are often aggressive, manipulative and predatory, driving away the genuine, such as when the police move folk on in the light of complaints. And yet it poses the question: how do we separate the needy from the greedy, the truthful from the dishonest and, besides, who are we to judge?
I met with someone during the week who based on something she has seen work well in the USA has started a small scale operation, where stuff, typically non-perishable food but it could be anything, is offered freely to any who wish to take, and they can do so freely and anonymously. While this lends itself to people taking out of greed, it can and does meet need. It is a non-judgmental approach and because it is anonymous gets round the stigma felt by those who use the service when it comes to using food banks.
I had a conversation with one of our guests at the night shelter I manage, who made mention that he has a son, he has been separated from for a period, who he would like to visit, and family circumstances are such that this is an appropriate time to make the visit. The problem is: he has no money and is currently unable to access benefits, and therefore cannot purchase the rail ticket to make the journey. I listened and we discussed options.
Pause a moment and think how you would respond in the above circumstances …
One of the things I find (and it is an experience of many similarly placed) dealing directly with the poor, and it my case it tends to be homeless related, is that those experiences are oft repeated and often there is no clear cut right and wrong answer. Often when people, who want to do good, approach me for advice, I generally repeat my position (like my friend) of not giving money to those who ask. While I get the point, especially when made by those living with the effects of having been unfairly judged earlier in life, that we shouldn’t be judging others, yet I am loathe to risk supporting the wrong causes or be taken for a ride, even though it is sometimes unavoidable, because I see too many untoward, unintended consequences when that happens. If I can help practically, I do and I do so without ostentation, and almost always I look the potential beneficiary in the eyes and affirm his or her humanity. I will also try to remember Jesus words: “it is better to give than receive” and yet at the same time “to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves“, as well as the old saying: “love thy neighbour” – whoever he/she is.