‘Why I think giving money to beggars is wrong’

Killing with kindness?Jeremy Swain says this woman’s charity may do more harm than good © PA
by Jeremy Swain

Jeremy Swain is the CEO of Thames Reach, a charity working socially excluded people, many of whom have suffered from homelessness.

Most people give to beggars out of generosity and compassion. If they knew how much harm their charity did to victims of addiction, perhaps they would think twice.

Much has been written about the psychology of giving; the reasons why we donate to charity and the different triggers that spark acts of generosity. Research indicates that for 90% of people who give, compassion is the motivating factor. There he is, the homeless man cross-legged beside the cash point, beseeching, grimy, desperate. Do the right thing.

A few years ago, one such man attracted the attention of Grant Shapps, then the shadow housing minister, when he accompanied us on an outreach shift. We appreciated Mr Shapps’ willingness to brave the wet and windy weather that night. But after speaking at length to one man he returned wearing a pensive expression. The man was living in a bed and breakfast in central London and was on a methadone ‘script’ as part of a planned withdrawal from heroin. But he was going through a bad patch and had decided to beg in order to ‘top up with heroin’. The shadow housing minister concluded that on the streets ‘things are not always as they seem’.

Indeed they are not, especially when it comes to begging. It is now 10 years since Thames Reach and other homelessness charities first sought to persuade the public not to give money to people on the street. Why? Because of the incontrovertible evidence that the vast majority of people begging are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs, like heroin and crack cocaine. The street outreach teams are well aware of this. It is also regularly confirmed by the police who find that on arrest, at least 70% of persistent beggars test positive for hard drugs. Usually the majority of those arrested are not sleeping rough but in some form of accommodation.

The vast majority of people begging are doing so in order to purchase hard drugs like heroin and crack cocaine

There are those who say that the recession is bringing a new kind of beggar onto the street, a person not addicted to drugs but simply in need of food. Yet data from a recent police-led operation in Birmingham that took place from August to October this year shows nothing has changed. In total 28 arrests were made for persistent begging. Six out of 10 of the arrested had their own home and all tested positive for drugs.

To understand the complexity of the relationship between the recipient and the giver, nothing is more illuminating than speaking with those who have systematically begged. Cheryl begged every day for five years around London’s Charing Cross train station. She had habitual givers who knew her well. Through their contribution she was able to sustain a ferociously destructive heroin habit before a social worker found her a hostel, from where she embarked on a treatment programme.

Cheryl’s assessment was that her contributors undoubtedly knew that she had a drug problem but as long as it wasn’t mentioned, all parties could go about their business and nobody was left feeling bad.

‘Because I feel sorry for them’ is a common justification. At which point a hot wave of anger will sometimes wash over me and my mind shifts to the front line staff; the people invariably left to try to pick up the pieces. Like the hostel workers who earlier this year were unsuccessful in their attempts to revive a young woman who took heroin bought largely with money begged in the early hours from the good people emerging from clubs. She was found drowned in her bath.

So we will battle on, supporting people to enter rehab, complete treatment programmes and deal with the complex underlying issues that have led them into dependency, all the while rowing hard against the seemingly unstoppable tide of public generosity.

You Decide

  1. Do we give money to the homeless simply to make ourselves feel better?


  1. Do some research into homelessness and design a poster containing some facts and figures about those on the streets.

Word Watch

A depressant drug which is similar to heroin but with less intense effects. Heroin addicts are often prescribed methadone in increasingly small doses to help them slowly give up the drug without horrific withdrawal symptoms.
A very strong painkiller made from morphine, which is found in a certain species of poppy. It gives users a feeling of extreme relaxation; but it’s also a highly addictive drug that destroys lives. Since heroin is usually injected, regular users often contract dangerous diseases like HIV.
Crack cocaine
Cocaine is a highly addictive stimulant derived from the South American coca plant. For a short time users feel hyper-confident, alert and often aggressive, but this is followed by a period of depression. Crack cocaine is a more intense version of the drug that is smoked rather than snorted.
A recession is a general slowdown in economic activity. In 2008, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, a sprawling global bank, almost brought down the world’s financial system. In the ensuing chaos, thousands of people lost their jobs.

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