Monday, July 8, 2013

The enlightened solution

In what you might choose to view as a coincidence, the cities of Auckland and Wellington are both engaged in a fight to eradicate street begging. Not homelessness or poverty, mind you: just begging. Auckland will likely vote later this year on an outright ban. Wellington, the more genteel capital, has opted for a measure that it has christened 'alternative giving', whereby citizens will be encouraged to donate to organizations who work with the homeless instead of the beggars themselves. Of the two initiatives, I find this one to be the most odious.

The Alternative Giving campaign relies primarily on two pieces of technology: in the initial phase, a series of posters like the one above are designed spread the message amongst the public. The posters feature a QR Code allowing smartphone users to make an instant donation, with the amount to be split evenly amongst the six participating charities. In the second phase, which is yet to be implemented, a series of "charity boxes" will be installed in begging hotspots, so that people can physically redirect the spare change they were about to give to the beggar, and put it to an economically more rational use. This is the image that is stuck in my head: that of a person begging for money, and of a passer-by reaching for his or her pocket, then putting the money inside the box instead of giving it to them. Will glances be exchanged? Will the look on the face of the alternative giver say: 'I'm doing this for your own good'? Or will in fact the gesture be accompanied by a little homily? 'You might spend this money on booze. I'm giving it to the box.'

Alternative Giving is the liberal answer to the problem of begging. Supported by the Green mayor, Celia Wade-Brown, and administered by former Alliance Councillor Stephanie Cook (this is the pair who blamed the neighbours of Michael Clarke for being insufficiently neighbourly), the initiative has been compared favourably to the Auckland ban, both by Cook herself (who called it a 'less harsh' and 'much more compassionate and pragmatic option') and by Diane Robertson of Auckland City Mission, sister organization to one of the recipients of the Wellington campaign. Criticism of Alternative Giving has also been generally less harsh, with no-one venturing to match Councillor Cathy Casey's accusation that the proposed Auckland bylaw 'treats beggars like dogs'.

Since Alternative Giving is the liberal answer to the problem of begging, its backers have to resort to a far greater degree of equivocation. The Auckland advocates – bless their black, black hearts – seem largely unperturbed that the bulk of the submissions they received came from retailers who wish to quite literally be allowed to sweep poor people away. In the more cultured, more enlightened Wellington, it is necessary for the goal to appease business owners to be carefully dissimulated. Thus begging is presented as the problem, but why or how it's left studiously vague. The Mayor said that 'it's not good for anyone to have a significant number of beggars on the streets', elegantly glossing over the issue of whether people needing to beg in the first place might be a bad thing, and for whom. A council spokesbeing lamented that people in an actual state of need stand to gain too much due to the generosity of Wellingtonians, estimating that they can accumulate (as opposed to earn, for words do matter) as much as $100 a day. Why this is a bad thing, however, he left unsaid. Some noises were also made about beggars possibly misspending the funds to buy 'alcohol or drugs', as if these were straightforward causes, as opposed to symptoms, of their economic distress. Or as if poor people shouldn’t be allowed some of those middle class vices. For their part, central city retailers approached by the Dominion Post 'reported an increase in begging overall, often among people who did not appear homeless or in obvious desperate need', as if their beef wasn't with 'real' beggars, but just the opportunist pretenders (which apparently they can spot by their 'tailored cigarettes and expensive energy drinks'. And no, I'm not making this up).

As for the effects of the policy, Councillor Cook suggested that '[t]hose who are currently perhaps 'opportunist' beggars if you like, will gradually disappear because they're not getting a result.' Why the genuine beggars won't be similarly deterred, or deterred less, I couldn't tell you. Perhaps Alternative Giving is like one of those intelligent bombs that never hit civilian targets. The statement however reveals the campaign for what it is: an instrument not to address homelessness and poverty but to hide the homeless and the poor. To make them 'gradually disappear'. How you do that is not by donating to organizations that will help them out (that particular money will never be enough to go around, and besides it could be solicited in other ways), but by reducing their income from street begging. That is the sole point of the campaign, and the reason why it is so much more loathsome than its Auckland counterpart: because it dresses up as piety and turns into a desirable social goal the community's desire to remove its poorest members from sight.

This ethics of not giving is persecutory and evil, and must be opposed. But it's also important to recognise that the effort to sanitise the streets – which on the surface is nothing more than another exercise in capitalism keeping up appearances during a downturn – is also a form of control. And no, I'm not saying this just because this ostensible social programme happens to be co-sponsored by none other than the New Zealand Police. It is the same paternalistic logic that governs the national programmes of welfare reform. It is the insistence that we must be cruel only to be kind; that we must punish the weak so they can become strong. As if this wasn't deep down about enforcing a failing economic and social model by correcting the subjects that fail to conform to it. This is how we care now. Look at it. This is who we are.


George D said...

The problem with beggars is not that they are poor and in public. It is that they are aggressively so.

That shouldn't be in contention; the active form of panhandling in Queen St is obvious and undeniable. They can't be ignored, and they push themselves in to the consciousness of people who would rather not deal with them. It's an active form of poverty. And when it conflicts with conceptions of how the poor should resolve their situation, and be resolve, then it's doubly a problem.

Philip said...

When Charity is all about
Alternatives to Handing Out,
Your Liberal Philanthropist
Can always make a Decent Fist;
That Person is a Simple Boor
Who hates Poverty, not the Poor.

Doug K said...

here in Denver the law in its majestic equality bans both poor and rich people from unauthorized camping..
the poor should be neither seen nor heard, just swept under the ashes I guess. That law also came in handy to clean out the Occupy Denver sites, curiously enough.

Chris Miller said...

To be honest, I'm fine with the idea that if I give money to someone they might spend it on drugs or alcohol. Why? Because they're ADDICTIONS. Meaning you can't just stop using without serious negative repercussions. Alcohol withdrawal can kill you, and a year or two ago doctors were telling alcoholics to keep drinking because there weren't enough beds in addiction centres to supervise their withdrawal symptoms. (As for energy drinks, I imagine you don't necessarily sleep well outdoors. Maybe they want to stay awake during the day. Maybe they just like the taste, and they have to drink something because that's how bodies work. I've been noticing lately that it's relatively hard to find drink apart from tap water that's both cheapish and healthyish, which is why we drank so much fizzy when I lived in Australia.)

Besides that I have a huge issue with the idea that funding organisations is enough to solve the problem. Particularly because I've worked in the community sector and am highly likely to do so again, so I know exactly how complicated and flawed a process it is for those organisations to get aid where it needs to go. Also because organisations working with the homeless have a history of tending towards paternalism or Christian judginess (I'm not sure which orgs they're funding but I'ma bet the Sallies are one, who at least aren't as bad here as in the US). Considering how many homeless people are from already vulnerable populations, who either might be turned away, or not told about all their options, or just not feel comfortable approaching the organisations in the first place, that's a problem. In fact people not approaching orgs is, in and of itself, a big problem. A lot of people don't want to accept help from an actual charity. They think it's undignified, or that there are others worse off who need it more (in my experience there are people who think this in every situation, no matter how objectively terrible), and may well see begging as actually working for money - especially if they have the ability to put on some kind of show, though I'm not sure whether that would qualify them as buskers rather than beggers and thus exempt.

Daphne Moran said...

We were in Portland, Oregon last month and there were huge, high-production signs everywhere featuring a person dressed as homeless carrying a sign saying 'DON'T GIVE ME MONEY, IT DOESN'T HELP'. I felt so angry and sad because it's a lie. Of course it helps, even if it helps for the hour that you're not detoxing, giving someone, anyone, money does help. The idea that it doesn't is a lie to make us feel better about not giving and to place the blame very squarely on the person asking for the money.

What was even sadder for me about Portland was when I got home I found this 1999 article which seemed to outline a much saner approach to the increasing numbers of homeless on Portland streets:

One of the greatest projects I saw in Portland was a network run through Red & Black cafe for homeless people by homeless people.

And then, last week, I was walking through Wellington and saw these posters were up which made me sadder and angrier.

Thanks for your articulate and thoughtful challenge to this campaign Giovanni. There is so much wrong with so much and this campaign seems to address none of it.

john mcm said...

The Oxford, England version of this was a campaign under the slogan 'Your kindness could kill'. The obvious and correct critique of it here:

The Council commissioned report into the campaign's effectiveness is here:

Basically, giving went down, sales of the (very problematic - there's some Lenin's Tomb stuff about it) Big Issue went down, anxiety levels among beggars regarding police attention went through the roof, with no actual evidence of an increase in use of services for homeless people. And, of course, this was a year or so ago, before the cuts in local authority budgets in the UK have really taken effect.

To suspend disbelief for a moment, it's possible to imagine a publicity campaign like this one being accompanied by some actual concerted outreach effort by a coalition of concerned parties. Going by the report it seems that there was nothing of the sort. Just some posters reaffirming that those people are awful losers and your better off not engaging with them. Because the coarsening of public attitudes towards the poor and vulnerable hasn't gone quite far enough yet.

Robyn said...

If I choose to, I can spend my money on booze, cigarettes, or even energy drinks. Why shouldn't a beggar be able to enjoy that same freedom?

Matt said...

I love how blatantly they've ripped off the "I need feminism because..." meme, too.

Keri Hulme said...

Agreeing with Robyn Gallagher & and the meat of your post Giovanni-
beggars arnt choosers for much of their lives: they can be choosers if people give money *just* to them.

I dont care if they splurge my coupla dollars. I'd much prefer they did that than I gave my kotuku to a group of charities (whose real objectives I have no interest in whatsoever).

Cleaning up the streets?
Cleansing of the streets of "undesirables" - and we dont need that kind of shit in Aotearoa-NZ-

sue said...

let's hear it for deciding who is worthy of charity and who is not. I recall in my first year an university studying social work, how shocking and strange and just wrong the 1800s view of the deserving poor was. but look what is cycling around,

ATML said...

We most of us have enough to give 'rationally' (choose your two or three charities and make automatic payments each month) AND give with human compassion to the fellow being who is asking for help right now, for whatever reason.

Giovanni Tiso said...

@Chris "organisations working with the homeless have a history of tending towards paternalism or Christian judginess (I'm not sure which orgs they're funding but I'ma bet the Sallies are one, who at least aren't as bad here as in the US)."

The organisations are Catacombs, the Downtown Community Ministry, the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre, the Wellington Homeless Women's Trust, the Wellington Night Shelter and the Wellington City Mission. And I hear what you're saying but I'd still be curious to know how their involvement came about. The City Mission seems actually in favour of the scheme (seeing as they advocate similar in Auckland), whereas I seem to recall the night shelter manager being interviewed on RNZ and being much cooler on the rationale for it (as he was in the DomPost). However if one or two organizations signed up, could any of the others actually afford to be left out of the loop?

Unknown said...

The poor business, Govt. business. I love how now the Govt. uses social marketing (their term) to be seen to be doing something. War on the poor styles.
All they need is a snappy headline and a phone link...job done.
It's kinda like Govt. post modern art...oh wait.

Megan Clayton said...

Coins in the webbing of the fingers.
Coins under the nails,
beneath the cuticles.

Dried coins in the beard.
Coins that tremble a little
as the sun rises above the building.

A steady coin to guide you home.
A coin up not a coin out.
The last few coins in the can.

Anonymous said...

"A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life's roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life's highway. True compassion is more than flicking a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring."

Anonymous said...

Martin Luther King - A Time to Break the Silence

S Beast said...

There is one thing I know for sure....I will never contribute to the campaign.

Occassionally I give some change to a beggar -not the aggressive ones because they offend me, but the quiet ones who seem forgotten by humanity. The council program is doomed to failure because it hasn't considered the human element of giving, that is that you give not because you expect a result, not because you expect a return on investment...but because for a single moment you allow another person a mental break.

I don't care if they use my money for drugs, drink, prostitutes...or a meal they wouldn't have otherwise had. "Expensive" energy drinks are ok too. I give them money for MY enjoyment, no one else's, especially not a charities.

Anonymous said...

I usually can't afford to give, unfortunately. Most of the time I don't carry cash, and if I do it's grocery money. But I would if I could, and this campaign makes me want to turn some of my savings into $2 coins and hand one or two out to anyone who asks.

By 'savings' I mean money I didn't spend on bills this week, that I will eventually need for clothes/doctors/dentists/etc.