There is a beggar in the town where I live who appeared on a BBC reality series about beggars.
This may have been a bit of an own goal because now everyone knows she begs because she is an addict, rather than merely hungry and homeless. Don’t give her any money, she’ll only spend it on smack, people say. I’m not funding her habit, they add. The implication is that she is begging as a lifestyle choice. That she is a chancer. A lazy junkie, wrapped up in her nylon sleeping bag on the pavement, with her paper cup in front of her.
I don’t know about you, but I have never withdrawn from heroin. By all accounts it’s pretty unpleasant, so much so that people addicted to it do all kinds of things to prevent it from happening — begging, borrowing, stealing. But the reality is that most people who are begging are not heroin addicts — they are more likely to be alcohol addicts, or just horribly, desperately poor. Overwhelmed. On the rocks.
Whatever their reasons, we — the non-beggars — have developed a narrative in which we tell ourselves all kinds of stories about ‘them’. ‘They’ are not really poor at all, in fact they are probably minted because they have mobile phones. ‘They’ are scammers. ‘They’ earn more than we do. ‘They’ are fake / organised / criminal / unworthy / dishonest. ‘They’ may even be — sharp inhalation — from Somewhere Else Altogether. Not even proper native beggars.
When we tell ourselves these stories, it makes it easier to look away. We are not giving them our hard-earned, because we worked for it and anyway, ‘they’ will only spend it on booze or drugs. But wouldn’t you? If life had dumped you on a random bit of concrete pavement with a wonky handwritten sign, wouldn’t you drink or take drugs to blot things out, to temporarily soften the hellish edges? I know I would.
And how thin the line between ‘us’ and ‘them’, despite the perceived chasm. A man I know vaguely, the kind of man who wears tweed jackets and good shoes, who I have seen for years sitting in meetings of abstinence based recovery, comes at me in the street.
Hey, he says, his voice harsh. Help me out. His clothes are dirty, his eyes bloodshot. The nice people I am with sidestep around him, politely recoiling. Help me out, he says again. I’m rattling.
This man does not want a delicious sandwich. He does not want a handcrafted coffee, or free advice. He does not want sympathy, or contempt, or avoidance. He just wants to stop rattling, which can be achieved by topping up what he is addicted to – in this case, booze.
As the people I am with walk away, I give him money. Maybe I will see him at a meeting again soon (he won’t remember our interaction), or maybe I will see him on a pavement. He could be me. He could be you.
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