Last night I went to ‘A Belter for Shelter’ at Hackney Empire. Some of my favourite comedians, including Stewart Lee and Daniel Kitson, performed in aid of Shelter, with ticket proceeds helping the homeless in Hackney.
Kitson was imperious as the compère, with his trademark combination of emotional vulnerability and superiority complex. Kevin Eldon was hilarious as the ‘poet’ Paul Hamilton, Kevin McAleer gave a hypnotic performance as a ‘spiritual guru’, Eleanor Tiernan gleefully poured acid over the ritual of throwing bouquets at weddings and Stewart Lee, was, well, Stewart Lee. There were other comedians also.
It was brilliant; funny and moving, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
As I left the venue and the barbaric cold hit me, I thought about the homeless, something I usually never do. I can tell what you’re thinking – ‘Steven, you live in the city of London. There are thousands of homeless people, some of whom you pass by and ignore every single day. How can you be so callously indifferent to their plight?’
My response would be to joust you off your high horse by revealing that I support 4 (FOUR) charities – but I would also concede that by doing so, I am creating a moral escape route with which I can justify disregarding such an acute and proximate problem like homelessness.
But the more I thought about it, the more it really bothered me just how little I cared. Why don’t I care more about this?
I think part of the answer lies with the socio-economic policies of the last 30 years – the relentless championing of competition and the subsequent rationalisation of individualism. Within this framework, everybody is an individual, competing with everybody else, and gives rise to toxic rhetoric, such as ‘the rich deserve to be rich and the poor deserve to be poor’, whilst conveniently overlooking complex economic, social, cultural, and environmental factors at play.
The focus turns inward; any sense of community or togetherness is demolished. As the homeless do not contribute to the economy, they are seen to be of no value and it becomes increasingly easy to malign and marginalise them. And with it, a creeping sense that these HUMAN BEINGS somehow deserve to be homeless – and therefore beneath help.
Whilst I reject this black and white conclusion, I must admit that my behaviour of passing the homeless as if they didn’t exist and using reason to defend it doesn’t help.
People must do this all the time, including the classic ‘If I give money they’ll just spend it on drugs’. Although as Tom Waits said, ‘Reality is for people who can’t face drugs’ – I am 100% sure if I was in their shoes (if they even have any), I would choose drugs over reality.
So doing nothing is clearly not the right response. But what is?
If you pass a homeless person and give money, suddenly, worms are flying out the can. Should you give every time? How much? Should you always ensure you have spare change considering the high probability of seeing a homeless person? If you give inconsistently, how guilty should you feel when you don’t live up to your previous high standards? And so on. The lines become so blurred it’s impossible to draw one.
I can honestly and selfishly say, doing kind acts make me feel good. I like helping other people – it also helps me. It’s why I support the charities that I do. But I could never remember a time when giving money to the homeless lifted my spirits – it only served to remind me of the prevalence of the problem and how little I changed their situation. Even tonight, I essentially gave a lot of money to the homeless but really, that wasn’t the motivation – it was to come and see my favourite comedians. But I began to think that surely, doing something, sometimes, was better than nothing.
And as I chewed all this over in my head on the way home, I passed a homeless man and unusually, having had some spare change, dropped £1.15 into his coffee cup.
He thanked me and I smiled.