Not helping harms us
Last week the Hamilton Central Business Association enacted the “Your Help May Harm” campaign, aiming “to educate the public on the challenges with giving money to people on the streets” and “focus instead … on other ways to get them help.” From the Fairfax article reporting on the campaign it sounds like feelings in Hamilton are running high. Shoppers are feeling “intimidated and uncomfortable,” “business owners were frustrated,” and one person who panhandles on the streets of Hamilton is on record saying “the campaign ‘sucks’ for him.”
I would venture that these feelings are good. We should feel something when faced with need.
Unfortunately, the usual response to panhandling is what academic Stephen Lankenau refers to as the “nonperson” treatment. We know it. The fixed gaze straight ahead when we notice someone begging for money, the determined pace to get past without engagement. Lankenau outlines how, in the face of these dehumanising avoidance techniques, panhandlers employ five skilful strategies to break through our nonperson barrier. “The entertainer offers music or humor, the greeter provides cordiality and deference, the servicer supplies a kind of service, the storyteller presents a sad or sympathetic tale, and the aggressor deals in fear and intimidation.”
In response we also escalate from avoidance to education and finally, to regulation. As William L Mitchell outlines however, regulation and punishment has not always been benign. Punishment for begging over the centuries has included “removal and resettlement, imprisonment, forced labour, branding, whipping, and death.”
Hamilton’s current solution seems multifaceted and I applaud them for their efforts to develop necessary support services. However I worry that this “leave it to the agencies” approach will encourage the “nonperson” attitude in many of us. How easy will it be for us to think, “They shouldn’t be here on the street, the Council’s helping them elsewhere?”
In her work on the Economics of Anti-Begging Regulations, Patricia K Smith highlights that in “[m]edieval and earlier times beggars were considered a normal part of the community.” Beggars “reminded people of the possibility of random misfortune” and giving alms to assist them was seen as a duty. It wasn’t until after the black plague, the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution that “beggars were no longer viewed as normal, but [as] threats to the social order and national prosperity.” Alongside wages and prosperity for many, blame, shame, and division crept into our thinking about societal and economic norms.
That’s why I think we need another campaign, the “Not Helping Will Harm” campaign. Sure, we can heed the advice of experts and not give money directly to the person asking for it. But maybe we should actually give money or time to a registered charity that does. Alternatively take a moment and buy the person some food; helping a local business and feeding someone for that day. Most of all, take a moment to see the person as you pass them, acknowledge their existence, resist the urge to “nonperson” someone. The people we are re-humanising may ourselves.