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Homelessness in Nottingham: Is Giving Always Good?

7 January 21 words: Ashley Carter
illustrations: Katie Smallwood

Whether you live or work in the city, or are just heading into town to grab your last few presents, the likelihood is that someone asking for money will approach you at some point. It’s a sad reality at any stage of the year, but at a time where many of us are preparing for the joys of Christmas and the weather is reaching dangerously cold levels, there’s an even deeper level of pathos. While for many of us, the natural human instinct is to offer money or food, Framework’s Service Director Dave Smith and Ronnie Tucker, Service Manager for Framework's Street Outreach Teams suggest a more long-term way of helping…

Cast your mind back to 2016, when Nottingham was receiving worldwide attention for all the wrong reasons. The Council had just launched a disastrous anti-begging poster campaign that saw them roundly castigated for demeaning some of society’s most vulnerable people. Looking back, it’s hard to believe this wasn’t an idea for Brass Eye that ended up on the cutting room floor, as black and white images of vicious looking ‘beggars’, accompanied by messaging like “Watch your money go to a fraud”, were plastered all over the city. The subsequent outrage was ferocious, and the posters were soon banned for promoting a negative stereotype of beggars in Nottingham. 

But while the approach and execution was at best cruelly misguided, and at worst cruelly demonizing, the calamitous campaign added to a conversation that had been growing for years: is giving money directly to beggars the right thing to do? 

As the Service Director at Framework, Dave Smith believes that, although the motivation to do so comes from a good place, the reality is that giving money to people who beg could well have an overall negative impact on their situation. “We all recognize the moral dilemma that seeing people who are quite obviously in extremely poor circumstances places us under as individuals. Giving money to people is a natural display of human compassion which I would never want to paint as a mistake or a problem,” Smith says, “But at the same time, we deal with a lot of people whose health and well-being is suffering badly, and one of the reasons for that is that they are being sustained in some really damaging circumstances and behaviours by begging on the streets of Nottingham.”

Ronnie Tucker is the Service Manager for Framework’s Street Outreach Team, who actively engage with rough sleepers in the area, and assess the long-term needs of them as individuals. “Someone who is begging outside Greggs, for example, can get several meals bought for them over a day, and make enough money to go and score as well,” she explains, “That leaves no real incentive for them to engage meaningfully in sorting things like their health, housing or benefits.”

Framework, like many homeless charities, are keen to inspire more long-term thinking when it comes to helping those in need: “We want to try and encourage them to get into recovery and treatment,” Tucker says, “if, rather than giving them money directly, you contact the Street Outreach Team, it allows us to step in and help them meaningfully engage in the services they need.”

But the fact remains that, when faced with the immediate, tangible opportunity to help someone, it’s an inherent human trait to want to do so. “It’s always been a difficult message to get across, and will continue to be, because of that emotional reaction,” Smith continues, “When someone is appealing to you personally it’s a very difficult thing to say no. Even with my experience, and I think I’m quite hardened to it, I do feel morally questionable when I walk away from someone who has asked me for money. It will always be hard.”

For Tucker and Smith, the results can be seen from years of experience working with Nottingham’s homeless. “This isn’t a moral judgement at all, but giving money directly to beggars can perpetuate this downward spiral that, unless there is a real alternative presented to them, will just keep going downwards,” Smith observes. And that downward spiral of substance abuse can be devastating, as Tucker describes, “It can be hospitalization and amputation or, as has been the case with several prolific Nottingham beggars, death. We operate a care home that is mainly full of people who have ended up needing care in their fifties because of the lives they’ve pursued.” 

The situation also raises problems with misleading members of the public who do choose to give money. “Not everyone that begs is a rough sleeper,” Tucker explains, “I also manage a hostel in Sneinton that houses ten rough sleepers. We know that some of them go out with a sleeping bag to try and make some money.” 

You might feel like it is helping, and in some cases maybe it is, but responding in this way isn’t helping to tackle the real issues

So what of the Council’s infamous poster campaign? “I was here at the time and my reaction was that it was pretty crude. It was too black and white, and there was a moral tone that felt over-the-top,” Smith recalls, “There would have been better ways of educating people about what could and should be done. It has to be done more positively rather than negatively.” 

This non-judgmental message of positivity is at the heart of everything both Smith and Tucker say about the issue: “Everyone I talk to about it accepts that it makes sense, and usually say that they hadn’t thought about it like that. It’s a conversation I have often.” Tucker says, “But that doesn’t stop that tug at the heartstrings when someone approaches you individually. You can’t make that go away, no matter how many times you try and give a rational reason.” Smith adds, “The message isn’t ‘just walk on by’ or ‘people are begging under false pretenses all the time’. The message is: if you think someone needs help, then point that person toward where help is best provided. If someone needs something, whether it’s money, food, shelter or practical help, there is somewhere they can go where those needs can be met.”

Since their disastrous poster campaign, the Council has sought out the help and advice of organisations like Framework to make sure they’re more effectively getting the message out. “They’ve approached us a few times in recent years, usually in the run up to Christmas, to see if Framework would sign off on the messaging, “ Smith explains, “There have been a few occasions where we’ve said no, and suggested they make changes. To the Council’s credit, they’ve listened to us, and to other organisations working with the homeless in the City, to try and clarify that message and to make it a bit more subtle.”

Fundamentally, the decision to give money directly to beggars is an individual one, and those who decide to do so shouldn’t be chastised. “We certainly don’t want to belittle that in any way, and I don’t want to be critical of those who are doing something so fundamentally humane,” Smith clarifies, “But there’s some responsibility on us, as an organisation, to pick up the pieces and say ‘this really isn’t helping’. You might feel like it is helping, and in some cases maybe it is, but responding in this way isn’t helping to tackle the real issues. You’re not really progressing things by giving in this way.”

While many will continue to give money to beggars, Tucker is keen to emphasise that Framework’s Street Outreach Team are on hand to provide more long-term, lasting help, and getting in touch with them to start the process is easy: “We have an 0800 number that is free to phone – we are really easily accessible as an organisation,” she says, “We know where the soup kitchens are, and what’s running on which day. We can work, with all of our partners, towards getting that person accommodated. It’s about providing wrap-around support for the individual.

If you want to get in touch with the Street Outreach Team regarding someone who is rough sleeping or begging, contact:

[email protected]
0800 066 5356

Framework website

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