A man came asking for help while I was visiting with the church’s minister recently.
He was not from London, but his wife had just been discharged from a local hospital following an emergency operation. They had nowhere to stay and no money for a hotel, so he was asking for cash to help them out.
He was due to be paid the next day, so he would return and pay the money back in the morning. He earnestly added that both he and his wife are Christians so “they knew the church would help them.”
He was convincing and, in many ways, his story was powerful and moving. There was just one issue: We were 99.9 percent sure he was not telling us the truth.
Many people living in busy cities are used to hearing such scenarios.
The minister kindly and calmly explained the places he could go for help. She did not judge, dismiss or treat him harshly. But she responded to the request with the wisdom that comes from her daily experience.
She knew how unlikely it was that any money given would be used for the purpose being presented. On hearing this, the man walked off in search of someone else to try his story.
In a recent interview, Pope Francis was asked about how we should respond to people begging. He said that giving to someone in need “is always right.”
When asked about if the person will spend it on alcohol, the pope replied, “If a glass of wine is the only happiness that he has in his life, that’s OK. Instead ask yourself what you do on the sly? What happiness do you seek in secret?”
The New York Times said the pope had provided “a concrete, permanently useful prescription,” which is “scripturally sound” and “startlingly simple” and which will help all city dwellers with how to respond to people begging: Give them the money and don’t worry about it.
I greatly admire Pope Francis and find his humility and compassion inspiring, but I strongly disagree with this advice.
My core reason is because all my experience tells me that giving money to people begging does not actually help them. Basically, it is not showing them love.
It sounds kind to tell people to give money to anyone who asks, but we do not have the luxury of such simplistic approaches.
We should not be cynical or harsh toward those begging, but we need to have a compassionate realism about the nature of their problems.
People begging are not intrinsically bad people and almost always have genuine needs, but handing over cash to them simply does not meet those needs effectively.
The Thames Reach, a United Kingdom homeless charity, estimates that 80 percent of those begging are doing so to maintain an addiction. Rather than helping, handing over cash can actually be killing with kindness.
My professional work is with homeless people, but serious drug and alcohol addictions have also affected close friends and members of my family. Tragically, addictions have contributed to the death of people I love, taken far too early.
Each person begging or approaching us for money is a precious human being of infinite worth. They are far, far more than an awkward situation to be managed well.
Our focus needs to be on them, not us. We need the courage and confidence to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.
Over the last 20 years, I have spoken with hundreds of people who are currently or formerly involved in begging.
I’ve yet to hear anyone say that the money they have received through begging has been a positive part of their recovery journey. However, I have experienced and witnessed countless scenarios where money gained through begging is part of the problem.
The pope’s references to “a glass of wine” are comically inappropriate for the kind of alcohol misuse that is common for many people who beg.
Many of the alcoholics that I have worked with can be drinking up to nine or 10 cans of super-strength lager or cider (9 percent proof) a day. Additional cash often just enables them to buy spirits.
Money given to people begging does not enable them a celebratory tipple: It is generally feeding an addiction that is literally killing them.
I know that the pope intends to set an example of kindness, justice and grace. But more and more money given to people begging will not result in a more just world.
We need to go upstream and invest in preventing poverty and family breakdown. We need to support programs that help people travel the hard road of recovery. And, of course, we need agencies that provide emergency help for people on the streets.
We can long for simple answers, but compassion is complex. To be transformative, our efforts to show grace must always be accompanied by a concern for truth.
Helping people in need is “always right,” but only if it is done in a way that actually helps them.
Jon Kuhrt is executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. A version of this article first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @jonkuhrt.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.