The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, has provoked a debate after he was photographed giving money to a beggar in Leicester Square. The chief executive of the London homelessness charity, Thames Reach, Jeremy Swain, someone who I admire greatly, commented: “I would advise Boris to give money straight to his local drug dealer and cut out the middle wo/man”. Jeremy also Tweeted: “People will never understand homelessness if every campaign is based on rough sleeping image. Please no more sponsored sleep outs”.
I agree with Jeremy on both counts. In the late 1990s I did research into drug-related deaths in Brighton and Hove and, all too often, the homeless people who had died (and they accounted for a disproportionate one third of all such deaths) had generated enough cash for their final and fatal fix through begging. Of course the causes of begging can be more complex, but as a rule I don’t give to those begging.
I also agree that homelessness is far more complex than rough sleeping. Some tremendous work has been carried out in Brighton and Hove by the City Council and by the third sector organisations such as CRI, Central Sussex YMCA and BHT. Sleep-outs tend to provide too narrow a focus. It is unfortunate when high profile people like Prince William do sleep-out’s as he did last December because the issue and solutions are not simple. We need to have proper discussions about them rather than see more sleep-outs which I regard as an outdated and inappropriate gesture.