“Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison and did not take care of you?” (And) he will answer them “Truly I tell you just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me”
Matthew Ch25, vv44-45
We all see beggars in the street – much more now, it seems, than we ever did in the past – so what are we to do when they shake their paper cups in our faces?
Plenty of people, so it seems, do drop the odd coin into the cups – and some not just the ‘odd coin’. After all, if there was no chance of getting anything, surely the beggars would not be there in the first place. But do we have a Christian duty to give in such circumstances? The above passage from Matthew’s Gospel seems to say that we do.
A supporting view would be that God’s material blessings have been given to us – those who are not homeless, not hungry, not impoverished – and given quite randomly: surely we should give likewise. Of course, any money given in such a way could be spent on alcohol, drugs, or anything else. But so can the money which we get from our salaries, pensions, etc.
The arguments against giving money to beggars are, of course, many and varied, and easy to find. We live in a ‘welfare state’ which, for all its shortcomings does attempt to care for all in need. That some people feel unable – or unwilling – to avail themselves of what is surely available must imply something about the person concerned. But this is little more than an updated version of the ‘deserving/undeserving poor’ argument satirised so bitterly in Shaw’s ‘Pygmalion’, where Eliza’s father, Dolittle, complains that his needs are just as great as those of the ‘deserving’ poor – in fact, given his vices (drink, betting, etc), his financial needs are greater. And beggars in the street could be said quite clearly to be of the ‘undeserving poor’.
The famous line from Tolstoy that all happy families share some characteristics but unhappy families are each uniquely unhappy can surely be extended to the beggars in the street. These people must have unique problems which drive them to be beggars and what we see are only the symptoms of their conditions.
Of course, it can be said that these extreme conditions of poverty and homelessness are the results of the poor choices made by the people concerned. This may be tautologically correct, but the argument is surely facile – I could just as easily say that I ‘chose’ not to win the National Lottery last week, because I chose the wrong numbers..!
So what are we to do? Most of us can easily afford to toss the odd coin into the proffered paper cup – an easy and immediately quite satisfying thing for us to do – but would that be the ‘correct’ thing to do? The best argument against doing this would surely be that to do so would keep these people begging, keep them on the streets and stop them finding a way out of their predicaments. But is that just an excuse for our parsimony? Charles Dickens’ Scrooge famously asked “Are there no prisons, are there no workhouses” and we would surely not wish to be numbered with him.
In a widely reported court case in Manchester last summer, Judge Anthony Cross, QC, advised that people should not give money to beggars in the street because this cash would often be used to buy drugs. He said this when sentencing two drug dealers to prison terms, noting that when arrested, one of the dealers was in possession of £800 in small change. The Judge concluded that the cash had come from beggars in the street and that the money had been given to them by ‘kind-hearted residents and visitors to the city’. He further advised that such donors would be better giving to charities helping the homeless, such as the Big Change Manchester campaign.
But are all street beggars drug addicts? It may well be that many are, but I can remember a radio interview with a former homeless rough sleeper who said that anyone in his former position would welcome any exit route, and the quicker that person could find oblivion the better he or she would feel.
Such arguments of course start to confuse the immediate issue of beggars with all manner of other social issues of addiction and the drug laws. It is often said that the drug addict, the alcoholic, indeed, even the cigarette smoker has to want to be cured of that addiction before the path to ‘normality’ can begin. Perhaps the same is true of the beggars in the street. But in the meantime we each must consider how we should react to the shaken paper cup.