9 December 2021

It's the season for giving, so should you give money to beggars?

| Zoya Patel
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domestic violence causing homelessness signboard

The Vinnies’ CEO Sleepout challenges many false perceptions around homelessness. Photo: Thomas Lucraft.

It’s mind-boggling that people are sleeping rough or begging for change in Canberra in 2021.

While the majority of us enjoy the gentle run down to Christmas, it’s hard to look past the forlorn figures crouched outside the Canberra Centre, cardboard signs propped up with their pleas for compassion.

But giving money to beggars isn’t always seen as a straightforward transaction, and I’m wondering what the consensus is out there as to the best action to take when it comes to helping strangers on the street.

There are two schools of thought on this.

The first is that people begging on the street should be able to access welfare, or otherwise should ‘get a job’ and support themselves.

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If you give them money, they’ll ‘probably just spend it on drugs’, which would be adding to the problem, not providing them with some relief. The underlying assumption behind this attitude is that Australians are all equally able to support themselves or access support if needed, and that if an individual is reduced to begging on the street, it’s likely a self-created issue.

This obviously doesn’t take into account structural inequalities and barriers to education, employment and housing that affect many Australians.

The alternative approach (and the one I subscribe to personally) is that nobody chooses to be in the position where they’re sleeping rough or needing to beg for money. It’s unfair to assume that a) every beggar has a drug addiction or that b) people suffering from addiction don’t deserve empathy, agency and dignity. Addiction is an illness, and the drivers behind it are often related to broader issues like experiences of inequality, trauma, marginalisation and generational disadvantage.

Personally, I hand out cash to beggars regularly, sometimes as much as $50 at a time, because I am in a financial position where that $50 is not so essential to my well being that I can’t go without it, and I am acutely aware of the luck and privilege I have experienced that means my circumstances are so vastly different from the person I am walking past.

Some would say that giving money to beggars also reduces the onus placed on governments to take action.

I would argue that there is little correlation between whether or not you drop your change into an outstretched palm and how government policy addresses the issue of poverty and inequality. While there are clear broader implications of the existence of beggars beyond the individual, including how our welfare system operates, what crisis accommodation and support options are available to people in need, how mental health care and rehabilitation is made accessible to various parts of the community etc, there is also an immediate individual issue that I can affect right then and there.

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In the moment, I know that giving that individual sitting outside the IGA $5 is going to make a measurable impact to their circumstances that day.

My lobbying the government, which is a valid and important thing to do, may have a lasting impact in the future, but it won’t make a difference right now. The two things are both impactful, in different ways.

As to the argument around where and how the money will be spent, personally, I don’t think that’s any of my business. I offer cash because I have it and someone needs it. It’s not up to me to dictate how it’s spent because being poor or unwell doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have agency and self-determination. If the person I give money to spends it on drugs, that’s their prerogative and choice, and not actually up to me to decide.

Similarly, I’ve had people say that they prefer to buy beggars a meal or hot drink. These same people are then offended when their offer of half a sandwich leftover from their lunch is rejected.

“I can’t believe he wouldn’t take the sandwich,” they exclaim. To which I reply, “Maybe he doesn’t like ham and cheese.”

Again, just because they’re poor or unwell doesn’t mean beggars should have to eat, drink or accept whatever is offered to them. They have tastes and preferences like anyone else. I give money because it means they can make that choice themselves.

As Christmas looms and spending increases accordingly, I’m even more aware of how much so many of us have in contrast to the suffering of those we walk past on our way to do our holiday shopping. I make donations to different charities throughout the year, and I know many Canberrans do so, especially at this time. But what about the individuals who are right in front of us? Should we give them cash to ease their burdens, or will we actually just be contributing to the problem?

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I’ve had a few interactions with street people. One was sitting outside at Dickson and I asked her what she needed. She was very embarrassed as she quietly told me that she needed sanitary products. (they should be GST free) Another in Belconnen asked me for some money to get something to eat. I told him I would buy him something to eat if he would come with me to the coffee shop. His eyes lit up. When we got there, he asked for a hot drink and a sandwich. That was all. I was quite happy to buy that for him. Another bloke also in Belconnen asked for some money and when I said I would buy him some food, he said he would prefer cash. So, one bad one out of three. All it takes is a little kindness to speak to the person and ask what they need.

Please, if you do have compassion for the beggars and street people talk to them as humans and just don’t throw money to them. I volunteer every week in Civic in an organization where we treat street people with dignity and love. Throwing $50 to them as you walk past is not treating them with dignity, it’s just virtue signalling at its worse. Just this Wednesday I was talking with a street person who lives quite comfortably on the $1,000 a fortnight he receives. $250 is taken out for rent. And yes the majority of beggars do have ACT housing. The point is treat them with respect, like humans and don’t just throw some cash in as you walk past. If you do want to donate please consider Vinnies, Catholic Care and Missionheart, all of whom actually work around Canberra to make a difference in Canberra’s homeless and street people.

A few years ago when we were visiting our son in Sydney, there were blankets and items of clothing under shelter on the streets of Newtown.
People had left money on the ground near the blankets. You knew someone had slept there last night.

I regularly see people asking for money in Canberra. The difference is stark. I saw a guy at Erindale: on the ground next to him was a bottle of Coca Cola. Not even a “homebrand” variety, but the brand name product. Chained next him was an 18 speed mountain bike.

Outside Aldi at Greenway I overheard a conversation between a male beggar and a woman. They were talking about their takings and the next spot she thought she’d try. Both had iPhones.

Yes, there are genuine people but there’s an element who are just happy to take your money because you are an easy take.

Offer to buy them a sandwich or a piece of fruit and I bet they’ll tell you they need the cash.

The money you are giving out of misplaced guilt to a street beggar is just funding their drug, smokes and/or booze addiction.
The money you are giving to a charity collector (chugger) is mostly (about 95%) going to the organisation (Cornucopia) that recruits these aggressive pests, even flying some in from overseas.
Do not give money to beggers, or chuggers because you will be creating a society where people make a living from begging (eg India) or street harrassment. Is that what we want?
If anyone is silly enough to sign up for regular donations to a charity, know that some charities take 60% of the donation in administrative costs (CEO salaries are high) and will also pass your contact information on to other charities to engage in endless mailouts and phone calls to you at home asking for more.

A Nonny Mouse10:02 am 10 Dec 21

I thought this comment was leading up to a recommendation to sign up to a regular contribution to a reputable charity in preference to ad hoc hand-outs. But no. It remained mean about that too. By all means, research which charities are most effective but don’t dismiss them all. Many do excellent work on a shoestring budget.

One should donate to good charities of choice, but never give out personal bank, phone or address details so as to avoid the persistent marketing tactics of their outsourced fund raising companies that earn commissions on extracting further donations.

Mike of Canberra4:08 pm 09 Dec 21

So the problem with Jobseeker is that it’s insufficient for its recipients to live on. Well guess what folks – it’s not meant to be a living income as those in the welfare industry (including our waste of space charities) would like to think. Rather, it’s designed. to provide subsistence for those who are between jobs.

As for help not being available for people to get through school, attend TAFE or University and be able to spruce themselves up and afford rent, we have charities coming out of our ears in Canberra- isn’t that what they’re supposed to do? Or are they simply there for show – you know, to take our money and exude a warm inner glow? Sort of reminds you of the ACT Government actually.

It really is about time our bleeding hearts got real and looked to the real culprit- the ACT Government. After all, they do seem to wish we were all poor – other than their highly favoured developers of course!

margaret pender1:34 pm 09 Dec 21

Great article, thank you, Zoya Patel. Recently, SBS ran a series about 3 people who tried to live on JobSeeker allowance for a week – they all failed. The people they were ‘paired with’ barely managed to survive on their benefits, and there was no leeway for things like dentistry, extra medicines etc. Interesting to see from responses so far that milk of human kindness doesn’t seem to be running in the ACT – it’s curdled!

Given money to beggars just proliferates the issue and actively encourages them.

And it’s not like they are all poor souls, down on their luck. Some can be quite forceful and rude both with the public and other homeless people, particularly around more lucrative begging positions.

Australia has one of the most generous welfare systems in the world, there is no reason for people to be begging considering the enormous amount of support services available.

If you want to help them outside of that, ask them what type of food or drink they like and buy it for them.

To give them money and claim “it’s not your business” where it’s spent is a massive cop-out. A large proportion of the time, giving them money is actively feeding the addictions that have driven them to the street in the first place.

Mike of Canberra11:56 am 10 Dec 21

Chewy, I think your comment is spot on!

Zoya, $50, what! How many bottles of cheap wine or drug hits do you enable with that?

“This obviously doesn’t take into account structural inequalities and barriers to education, employment and housing that affect many Australians.”
I don’t believe that for a moment – exactly what structural inequalities and barriers exist in Australia?! *Anyone* can get a public school education at virtually no cost to them. Anyone willing to do a bit of work can secure a casual job that would support them through TAFE or university (that latter being typically funded by a low-interest loan from the Australian Government, which you only repay when your income exceeds a threshold). You can’t seriously say these things are out of reach for anyone with a bit of motivation.
“Again, just because they’re poor or unwell doesn’t mean beggars should have to eat, drink or accept whatever is offered to them. They have tastes and preferences like anyone else. I give money because it means they can make that choice themselves.”
Haven’t you heard the saying: “beggars can’t be choosers”? I know when I’m hungry I’m going to be a lot less picky about what I eat! Many of Australia’s beggars have already made a choice themselves, that is, to depend on someone else to support them.

tim_c – what a load of rubbish you talk. What if your schooling was completely disrupted by domestic violence or illness to the extent that your level of literacy is now extremely low? How do you go to TAFE or Uni with that? How do you spruce yourself up to get a job when you are living rough because rent is unaffordable? What if every adult in your childhood was also undereducated and unemployed so that you had no good role models? These are the inequalities and barriers – try to think outside your position of privilege for just a minute.

harcm said “tim_c – what a load of rubbish you talk. What if your schooling was completely disrupted by domestic violence or illness to the extent that your level of literacy is now extremely low? How do you go to TAFE or Uni with that? How do you spruce yourself up to get a job when you are living rough because rent is unaffordable? What if every adult in your childhood was also undereducated and unemployed so that you had no good role models? These are the inequalities and barriers – try to think outside your position of privilege for just a minute“.

In Australia, and in particular Canberra, you can rise from poverty to become a contributing member of society – you just have to stop allowing yourself to be a victim and have a crack.

Capital Retro8:38 am 09 Dec 21

I refuse to give to beggars who have the latest iphone and designer cross-trainers.

It’s a bit like some of the farmers complaining they need support because of the drought, while they’re driving around in the latest $150k+ Landcruiser. I can’t afford a car like that, so maybe they should be helping me! Or at the very least, perhaps they should remember that Australia is “a land of droughts and flooding rains” and there will be tough years ahead so don’t blow the whole income from a few good years.

Really poor analogy. Farmers work their backsides off during good times and bad while beggars can literally be choosers.

Capital Retro12:25 pm 09 Dec 21

The Landcruiser was thousands of dollars cheaper than a Tesla and the Landcruiser has a towbar.

I said *some of the farmers* – I know a lot “work their backsides off” but they’re probably not the ones asking for handouts

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