We are bombarded with encouragement to help our neighbours, to participate in our communities and to fight for change in our towns. But how many of us stop to consider whether our actions are the most effective use of the money, time or energy that we are able to give? Maidstone hosts one of the West Kent Recovery Service hubs where the RSA’s Whole Person Recovery project focuses on supporting people to move away from problematic drug and alcohol use and to become responsible and contributory members of society. It is a lovely town, with an abundance of public services and yet also seems to have a disproportionate amount of people who are rough sleeping.
The Council in Maidstone has recently followed a number of other boroughs and launched the controversial campaign ‘your kindness could kill’, aimed at educating people that sometimes providing hand-outs to people who don’t have the skills or willingness to make healthy choices is not the best use of cash. The narrative attached to this campaign is extreme – the inference that if you choose to give money then you are choosing to put someone else at risk. I wonder how successful a campaign like this is, and how exactly success would be measured. Publicity around the campaign states the aim is ‘to tackle begging’ and ‘get homeless people off the streets’, but one wonders what the real motive is behind such an arresting call to action. Undoubtedly, some people are forced into rough sleeping and this is for a myriad of reasons. Britain has a shortage of social housing and in some areas there are reported twenty year waiting lists for appropriate housing. The Maidstone Day Centre, who provide direct services for homeless people, state on their website that they are aware of 25-30 people who will be sleeping rough in Maidstone tonight. Isn’t this what we should be focussing on?
Begging is an emotive issue. Is it better for a person to beg others for money than to commit crime? The aim of the campaign is ostensibly to deter people from donating money to those that may not in fact be homeless and would use it to buy drugs or alcohol, but it seems to me that this micromanagement of the wider problem is a little lacklustre. Is the aim to deter people from begging by cutting them off at the source? Is it to reduce substance misuse amongst the population or is it an attempt to drive funding towards those charitable organisations that are struggling to fill the void created by public service cuts with a harsh reduction in available funding? One of the main problems not identified by those behind the campaign is that giving money to someone in the street is reactive and immediately gratifying, while giving money to a charity often requires planning and is easier to put off or forget about. I wonder at what point it was considered a better idea to try this convoluted campaign over channeling resources into a more direct approach – say more resources for the support homeless services directly, or for street wardens and Police staff. Perhaps street wardens could carry a charity box that the public could immediately divert their funds into?
Just how naïve are people who choose to give money in this way? One comment on the local newspaper’s website stated “there was me thinking every time I bunged a beggar a quid or 2 that they were running straight to the bank to pop into an ISA account”. Even though the public is aware of the risks, they clearly still choose to give.
My concern is that this type of campaign further stigmatise a group of people who already face extreme challenges. Is it the case that people who would give cash to beggars will find a more appropriate way to give? I would be interested to see if the charities that offer homeless support report an increase in charitable donations as a result of this campaign.
If you would like to get involved with any of the wonderful causes that help to support homeless people in Maidstone click here for information, or you could just pop down to the town and start handing out 20p pieces. But that’s for you to decide.