Should you give to people on the street?

A guest post by Greg Andrews, following my asking him for his thoughts on this article in Cape Town Magazine. Greg has worked with vulnerable people in South Africa for the past 20 years. He is currently the Operations Manager of The Service Dining Rooms and Convenor of the Street People’s Forum in Cape Town.

Should you give to people on the street? In general I would discourage giving, but a simple “no” cannot do justice to the complexities inherent in this issue. Here’s why:

move-to-service-dining-room-28-august-2011-5-640x480When we talk about “people on the streets”, important differences between different kinds of people can become blurred. Are we talking about children, adults, beggars, or people parking cars or collecting recyclables? When the subject of “street people” comes up we’re often talking about all these people and more, and in each case I think the answer to the original question is different.

We’re also talking about different streets: Cape Town is not the same as Jozi. Each context is different, and there are different consequences that result from giving money. To further complicate the issue, another question is what we mean by “give” – because that can also mean everything from a hand-out, to payment for services rendered!

So let’s start with the clear and unequivocal part: giving money to children on the streets of Cape Town is never a good idea (and it’s probably never a good idea anywhere else for that matter). The Western Cape Street Children’s Forum (WCSCF) has a range of organisations who offer a comprehensive and excellent service for children who end up on the streets. Giving money makes it harder for these organisations to do their job and locks the children into a life on the street.

When I started working on the streets of Cape Town in 1994 there were groups of kids wandering the streets and sleeping in doorways. At one count there were close to 500 kids in the CBD alone. Now, there is only a handful. While you might often see kids wandering the streets in the daytime, these are not street kids; we call them “strollers” because they go home every night. They may be playing truant from school, or might have been sent by parents to earn some money at the robots, but they return to a home every night. These kids should be in school or cared for appropriately, so while their situation is a problem, it’s a different and usually lesser problem to that of having street kids who live permanently on the streets. Fortunately, because of the work of the WCSCF, stroller kids who become street kids are quickly absorbed into the system of care that sees upwards of 80% of children reintegrated back into community.

When it comes to adults the picture is not nearly so good. We don’t have as good a system of care for adults in Cape Town as there is for people under 18. The situation with adults is also complicated by the fact that adults have legal agency whereas children do not – children are required to adhere to the decisions of their guardians. This means that whereas the State can place a child in a system of care, an adult must choose to engage with the services on offer.

Most of the people who have been living on the streets for years have chosen many times to access those services but, for whatever reason, the intervention has not worked. Each time someone tries to fix their life but fails, their confidence is further diminished until they eventually give up trying. So when people speak of those who ‘wilfully’ choose to live on the streets, these are the people being referred to. We are not talking about individuals who, faced with a range of good choices are irrationally turning their back on a perfectly good set of options. For many people living on the streets, their sense of personal self-worth makes the simple act of choice into a mountain they have sincerely tried, and repeatedly failed, to climb.

Many adults are choosing to live on the street because it’s the best choice out of a range of terrible choices. The streets are not a comfortable place to live but they can still be a better option than the brutality many experience on the Cape Flats.

While begging is common on the streets, there are many who choose not to beg but try to find some means to be industrious – to earn their income. Often it’s the same people who are both begging and also trying to find more legitimate work. Looking after people’s cars is one way some have found to make a living. And there is a range of excellence in how this service is delivered. Some opportunists will simply try to convince you that they’re trying to help you while slacking off under the bushes. Then there are those who have been at it for years, and know each of the regular parkers who come to their street (sometimes even reserving a bay for a particularly regular client). There are even people on the street who have been witnesses in prosecutions of smash-and-grab criminals. Frankly, that is a level of service I’m prepared to pay for, and I can’t see how that could possibly be considered begging.

The Give Responsibly Campaign is good because it discourages giving money to kids and gets us to support the organisations that help both kids as well as adults on the streets. But, the campaign has had unintended negative consequences in terms of its impact on those individuals who are trying – like everyone else – to make a living legitimately: those who park cars, wash cars, collect recyclables and so on, in that it’s forcing them to resort to begging to supplement their income.

The City’s stated policy is to make the streets as “uncomfortable” as possible in the mistaken assumption that this will drive people to access services. But those services are sometimes not actually in place, nor equally accessible to all, so street people are caught between a rock and a hard place. By-laws make it virtually impossible to live or to make a living on the street – even if you are not at all criminally inclined. Anyone too soft to handle the daily “operations” of law enforcement agencies moves out to other areas, and the vacuum is filled by harder individuals for whom aggressive begging is easy. Criminality then increases, and law enforcement feel vindicated because “begging is on the increase”.

But what about people who spend their earnings on alcohol and drugs? People who ask me this question are concerned about how their gift or payment will be used, and this is certainly a good concern to have. It indicates a desire to ensure that the person receving the money is actually benefitting from it, and we’d clearly want that to be the case. But the question is really hard to answer, because so much of the answer depends on the moral values of the giver / payer. If you believe all drug and alcohol use is wrong, then you probably will struggle to give at all. Fair enough – that’s up to you.

I prefer to understand why people use substances. Very often they’re doing so for good reasons, given that person’s context. I may not like those reasons, but once I understand the person’s situation I get why they need the drink or the hit. I’m a little less dogmatic about “feeding people’s habits” or ”enabling” addicts because I work with many people who have mental health issues and can’t access adequate services. For someone who is bi-polar, a little tik can get you going on a down day or a cup of wine can bring you down when you’re manic. Until these people have access to a healthier alternative, is it fair for me to tell them how to manage their moods, while I have access to a host of excellent (and legal) mood-altering services?

So, back to the original question: “Should you give to people on the street?” To answer that question unequivocally requires an arrogance we can’t afford, because a clear yes or no assumes god-like powers of omniscience. Our greatest gift to each is other is not found in the power of such super-natural miracles, but in the ordinary compassion of humanity: You won’t know the full consequences of that gift or payment until you know the person you’re giving to better, and have some understanding of their unique circumstances.

Even knowing the person is no guarantee that you can avoid unintended consequences – giving or not giving can both result in terrible outcomes. But if you are willing to get to know someone, you’ll find that in these relationships, as in all relationships, there is room for mistakes: when I take the time to build trust with you, that trust mitigates my mistakes and (wonderfully) maximises even the smallest good.

Further reading:

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.