When I was young, very young, my father always said that England was the only country in the world where begging is forbidden because it is unnecessary. Is that still true?
….He walked past the beggar sitting at the top of the stairs and a few metres later suddenly turned back. The station was teeming and he had to jostle through the crowds he had just walked past in order to see the woman again. Sitting on cardboard and a sleeping bag, this thin middle aged woman was crouching with her knees up against her chin, her palm turned outwards to leave you in no doubt that she was begging rather than resting, a large paper carrier filled with half eaten sandwiches and a carton of drink by her side. Her piercing blue eyes and half smile made her look very uncomfortable – and ensured that any passer-by was equally?? uncomfortable.
He gave her some money and unpremeditatedly asked her why she didn’t go to a shelter.
” I have,” she said, “but I need eighteen pounds to register. I’ve been to The Passage and other places but I need somewhere for the night. If I don’t get back within the hour with the £18 pounds I lose my place. Then they will say I will have made myself intentionally homeless.”
He was in a total quandary. Do I give her the money? After all it’s only 18 pounds or do I walk on? If I give her the money what will she do with it? If I don’t give her the money what will happen to her? All these questions raging in his head with no answers forthcoming. In the meantime the beggar woman is waiting.
He makes a decision: “I’ll give you three pounds now – do you need anything to eat? And I’ll come back in a few minutes to see how you’re getting on.” The woman thanked him – did she look grateful? and said she had enough food.
He moved away thinking hard. What to do? As he was on his way to a chemist he came across some young people collecting for the homeless. Ironic or what? Big green and yellow buckets. The noise of loud rattling. Most people ignoring them even though there were hundreds of people on the concourse. He wanted to tell the collectors there are real homeless people sitting not twenty yards from where you are collecting. Go and do something practical… but he didn’t of course. He went on. He passed by another beggar, sitting cross-legged by the cobbler’s and key shop. He walked straight past after glancing at him cursorily and then found himself asking – Why do I not stop and help him? Is it because he is a man and looks more used to it? Is it because he looks dirty and tired, and therefore less attractive.
Angry with himself for not being consistent he went on, ran a few small errands and then on the spur of the moment went back to look for the female beggar. There she was at the top of the stairs just as he had left her. He asked her how she was doing… the beggar opened her palm: the one pound coin and the two pound coin he had given her were sitting snugly in her hand surrounded by but not covered with a few coppers and a ten penny piece. Not enough to get her into a hostel.
“If I give you 15 pounds will you go straightaway to the hostel?”
“Yes, of course.” She looked very surprised. He handed her the 15 pounds without a word and turned away, determined not to look back and see if she had left, or if she had decided to stay and get some more.
Should he have done it? Should he have given anything? Should he have given more? How do you know when to stop? How do you know when to give to individuals or when to give to formal organisations? These questions plague him every time someone asks for help. Is it ever right to refuse? Is it ever wrong to give?