Why Street Begging is so uncomfortable.

I want to unpack the question of the awkwardness around homelessness.

First, there is a legal definition of homeless, and a social/moral one.

The legal definition includes not having a permanent home or place of residence. Within homeless there’s a spectrum ranging from hotel to hostel to the street. Charities work at all levels; providing emergency hostels, soup kitchens at one end, and employment and legal advice on the other.

The archetypal awkward homelessness situation is specifically about a homeless person, on the street, asking for change. It is a very familiar situation to a lot of people.

People who have begged/panhandled for money routinely say how difficult and emotionally draining it is. Conversations tend to focus on the impact of giving cash; is it beneficial? Answers fall into two camps. The official line from most charities and from the police force is that cash is dangerous, exploitable, and doesn’t address the route of the problem.

The other camp is thornier, uglier, raw. Articles like “Should You Give Cash To Homeless People? Absolutely.” question the power imbalance of begging. In the face of desperate need, give what is asked for, they say. If someone is homeless and wants to buy drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, not food or a fraction of a bnb room, is that not something they should have the right to?

This power imbalance is what makes us awkward. In the moment where someone sees a slightly-too-dishevelled person approach them, and recoils and make excuses, they are disgusted with themselves.

The street encounter is the visible embodiment of many wider social issues. The unfairness and brutality of financial and social inequality rises out of the ordinary social tableau of city centre shopping, suddenly confronting the viewer like being dropped kicked in the stomach.

People asking for money may not be “homeless”, but they are out of options. No one with better options wants to spend their day asking predominantly hostile strangers for money. This is painful to be aware of. Our ability to choose is fundamental to freedom and dignity.

The recipient is faced with a moral quandary. The gulf in people’s choices begins to glow like a beacon. The pain of privilege begins to physically burn.

Next week, I’m going to look at the realistic options once acknowledgement is unavoidable.

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