While riding the tram into the city on a recent Saturday night, I overheard a passionate conversation.
It was between two middle-aged women, one of whom had been approached by a homeless woman on the way to the tram and asked for spare change.
“I told her, I’m not giving you money but I’ll happily take you over to the café and buy you a sandwich,” one woman explained.
“Exactly what I’d do,” agreed the friend. “You never know what they’re going to spend it on otherwise. I don’t want to be supporting anyone’s drug habit!”
Since I began writing about homelessness and addiction several years ago, this is an idea I’ve encountered again and again. Some people offer blankets in lieu of change, some a coffee, but the principle is the same: if someone asks you for money on the street, you make sure they are spending that money in a way that’s morally responsible.
Here’s what’s wrong with that principle:
IT’S DEEPLY PATRONISING
If a friend asked you to borrow a small amount of money, would you police the ways in which they were permitted to spend it?
To dictate the way a homeless person spends any money we have decided to give them is to place ourselves in a paternalistic role, overseeing their welfare and decisions.
It’s to make an assumption that we are of higher moral character and better placed to arbitrate how the money is spent. People who are sleeping rough deal with this particular form of prejudice constantly, and the weight of it can be exhausting.
Steve*, who was sitting outside Wollies one Saturday night, told me: “It’s just such a relief when someone stops to chat and asks you what you need, instead of lecturing you on how you should be living your life.”
Of course, we can always say no. The person has asked a yes/no question — Can you spare some change? They deserve the same yes/no answer we would give anyone else.
WE HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT PERSON IS GOING THROUGH
Maybe the woman in front of you does use drugs. Maybe she is one of the between 30 and 85 percent of homeless people who suffer from a mental health condition. Maybe the only tool she has right now that can ease the pain is heroin or ice.
It’s easy to scorn addiction when you have access to the kind of social and financial safety nets that tend to insulate people from falling into it: money, healthcare, a stable home life; a network of supportive friends and relatives.
Ella*, who I met a couple of years ago in the Melbourne CBD, detailed an unstable up-bringing spent bouncing between various foster homes. Her mother had buckled under the weight of supporting three children after fleeing a violent partner, and Ella endured various forms of abuse before running away from care.
We don’t know what we’d do if we were in Ella’s position; what we would say if we were offered a small comfort in the form of drugs. No one chooses to become addicted, but for some it’s a lot easier to avoid than for others.
YOU’RE NOT GOING TO STOP SOMEONE FROM BUYING DRUGS IF THAT’S WHAT THEY INTEND TO DO
A good friend of mine was addicted to heroin. I watched him many times as he writhed and sweated through withdrawals. In those instances, I would have done anything to stop his pain, and many times, I did.
Drug and alcohol withdrawals are, by all accounts, nightmarish. No dependent person is going to stop taking drugs because you decided not to give them some money. The truth is that they will just have to find another way to get it, and I would much rather give someone some change to contribute to a collection effort than see that same person pushed toward theft or unwanted sex-work.
If you truly care about doing something to help people in homeless communities get off drugs, there are many things you can do. Refusing to hand over money on an individual occasion is not one of them.
THE PERSON MAY NEED TAMPONS, CONDOMS, OR SOMETHING ELSE THEY ARE EMBARRASSED TO MENTION
For people like Ella, it must be a lot easier to simply say the money they are requesting is for food, than to detail whatever it is they may need at that time. I wouldn’t want to tell a stranger that I had just gotten my period and desperately needed eight dollars for a box of tampons.
When people have told me about their rule to give food in lieu of money, the subtext is that they’re doing the morally correct thing; they’re doing it because they care about the welfare of the person requesting money. But is this really the best way of demonstrating how much we care?
My sister has been homeless. She has been addicted to drugs. But when she was a quirky, vegemite-smeared five year old, she wanted to be a vet. She never planned on succumbing to a monster mental illness, on being sexually assaulted, or running away from home. But it happened. And I like to think that if, in that messy time of her life, she had politely asked a stranger for some help, they would have smiled and given it to her.
No one ever plans on being homeless. But many vulnerable people end up that way. They are people like my sister, who are mentally ill. People who have been abused, or been born to poverty, or succumbed to financial ruin. They are people of colour, LGBTQ people, and indigenous people like Ella.
These are people who deserve more of our compassion, not less, than the more fortunate.
07 Sep 2018
If you would like to assist homeless people with drug dependencies, there are many amazing charities and organisations who would be ecstatic to have your help.
Here are the names of a few:
The peak body for Aboriginal health in Victoria. Get in touch for info on how to donate to Indigenous health services
Youth homelessness organisation
Has a great list of homeless and other worthy organisations seeking volunteers