TOUGH LOVE? a response to begging and homelessness

What to do about homelessness and begging?  My heart is so heavy for people reduced to these, and we’ve had to think hard many times about the best response.  I say ‘best’ because there are just no easy answers, and the answers are usually to be found in addressing the underlying issues, not just responding to the symptoms.  It’s easy enough – and often right – to give money out of compassion, but what, if anything, is being done about the issues that create homelessness and poverty?

We’ve had to face this time and again – in N Nigeria where beggars were rife, in Romania ditto (often with child beggars being manipulated by greedy adults) and of course on our own streets where Hub is involved in a homeless project and chairs the joint churches’ response to rough sleepers in the winter.

Peoples’ reactions to beggars and the homeless can be very different – some people believe we should give unconditionally to anyone who begs, without asking questions or judging.  Others, like Jon Kuhrt, have what I consider strong reasons for thinking otherwise.  Jon not only works professionally with the homeless, but lost a cousin through drug abuse.  One of the questions is, ‘when we give, whom are we really helping?  The other person?  Or are we just trying to make ourselves feel better?’

Too tough?  Here he makes out his case:

My cousin and the bitter cost of drug addiction:  by Jon Kuhrt















This weekend, I was on the BBC1 programme Sunday Morning Live (see on BBC iPlayer, 24 mins in) discussing homelessness and begging.

I was on the programme because I disagree with the view of journalist Matt Broomfield who believes people should give ‘directly and unconditionally’ to people who are begging.


My views on this issue have been shaped by 20 years of working with homeless people.  All my experience tells me that handing over cash does not help and often makes the situation worse. (for more see How should we respond to people begging or When helping the homeless doesn’t help).

In the discussion on Sunday, one of Matt Broomfield’s points is to ask yourself how you would treat someone in your family? Well, for me this is not a hypothetical question because alongside my professional work, I have also seen the terrible cost of addictions in my family.

My cousin James

My cousin James and I were the same age so as youngsters we spent a lot of time together. He was very good looking, cheeky and outwardly very confident. But in his teenage years, he began drinking heavily and in his twenties he became addicted to heroin. It began a 20 year battle with the drug.

James died suddenly just after Christmas last year. He was 45.

James’ mum asked me to speak at his funeral in January. After a long gap in our 20s and 30s, we had re-built a close relationship and we often spoke on the phone.

James’ life was chaotic as he continued to use drugs on top of his methadone prescription.  He gave permission for me to speak with his case worker at the drug clinic and we tried to support him to make progress. But it was hard and there was many ups and downs. The pattern was that James was able to go through physical detoxification from drugs but was  not able to undertake the psychological rehabilitation that would address the underlying issues.


One of the reasons we got on well was that we were honest and upfront with each other. He would often say ‘Let’s have no bullshit Jonathan’.

Crucially, we agreed some clear boundaries. Firstly we agreed that I would never lend him any money. Secondly, although he could phone me whenever he wanted to, I would end any conversations where he was simply blaming everyone else for his situation.

Rather than find these judgmental, James appreciated these boundaries. Perhaps they made him feel secure as he was not able to blag anything off me or even disappoint me. We had many heated conversations but the relationship never got broken.

The especially tragic thing was James had been doing well before he died. He had met a new partner and they were happy together. He had a nice meal with his Mum and her husband and he had given her a Christmas present for the first time in decades. He had even come off the drugs.

But the damage he had done to his body caught up with him. And shortly after Christmas he suffered a fatal heart attack.

Re-thinking kindness

Its not easy to write this. But I wanted to share it (with James’ mum’s permission) because its a personal experience. I loved James as my cousin. He was not someone I was paid to work with. There was no contract or strategy.  In one way it was nothing to do with my work.  But in another way it has everything to do with my work because the same principles apply to helping him as they would to anyone struggling with an addiction.

We need to re-think what it means to be kind because often the road to hell really is paved with good intentions.  If we are to really help people with addictions then we will need to hold boundaries and be thoughtful about what we do.

The best things to give

I wish with all my heart that my cousin James was still alive. But I know that the best things I gave him was friendship and time because it was these things that built an honest and real relationship. It was not by giving him easy cash or colluding with a victim mentality which justifies destructive behaviour.

The growing homelessness in our country is deeply wrong and social injustice and economic inequality are the primary cause. We should be campaigning for more affordable housing and against austerity.

But once someone is in the grip of an addiction, the underlying politics of what has created their situation counts for little.  We cannot just use homeless people, as Matt Broomfield is doing, as illustrations of political failure. True compassion means being focused on what actually helps them take steps of recovery and come off the streets.

This is because, like my cousin James, each person sleeping rough or gripped by addiction is a precious human being of infinite worth. We need to ensure the focus is on their true needs, not our emotional need to respond. If we are to truly help them we must have the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

7 thoughts on “TOUGH LOVE? a response to begging and homelessness

  1. Without taking account of the the causes of the increased numbers of people begging on the streets, we, as citizen’s are, by virtue of our humanity and any abilities we have, put in an invidious position to filter any which way we can, those who we feel are more deserving than anyone else who may be in a similar position. I have noticed the majority of people begging, do not these days, make as many direct approaches as has happened previously. Or, perhaps, it is just in the areas that I visit. When speaking to a few individuals, I discovered they were receiving guidance,[training] in the day/night shelters they have access to, not to approach people in the street, . As was explained to me, there is no desire to frighten anyone, nor for the persons begging, put themselves in positions more difficult than they are already in. The rationale is, that if they do not literally invade someone’s space, it is safer for all concerned and they may receive a kinder response.

    I’ve been thinking carefully about this. We have discussed similar questions in the past. I totally agree with Shimon’s perceptions, they echo some of my own inclinations.


  2. I’m with Shimon, each situation and person is unique, I gave a beggar 50p as I entered the pictures when I was 17, when I came out he pressed five pounds into my hand and disappeared into the crowds. I usually buy food and drinks for homeless


  3. Very good post. Having worked among such people I can wholeheartedly identify with the stance of Jon Kuhrt though I would also agitate vehemently for radical change to a system which breeds such suffering. 👍

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You have so many strings to your bow, Elliott! Did you work with the homeless in this country?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Not as much as I did in SA! There was little choice there…..Not sorry…..Made ministry worthwhile. 😉


  4. I think in such cases we should go with our intuition, our mood and our general inclination. Just as we may click with some people in a random situation, or remain faithful to a particular shop or store because we like the atmosphere or the sales person there, when dealing with a beggar it is still a person to person meeting. Ultimately, it’s our choice… just as it was the beggar’s choice to approach me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am very struck by this relaxed response. Why not, indeed? I shall ponder this some more! Thank you for making me think.

      Liked by 1 person

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