Even before reports of police seizing the takings of Melbourne’s beggars as proceeds of crime, their plight has been a disturbing one in this, the world’s “most liveable city” - and in other major Australian cities too. Few of us are so callous or cynical not to feel uncomfortable when confronted by someone sitting on the footpath asking for a couple of dollars for a meal or somewhere to sleep for the night. Yet many of us decline to respond to the request.
Usually this reluctance to give is not for lack of generosity. Often the discomfort felt is quite genuine. Our reasons for not giving are, however, fairly predictable and, if my experience is anything to go by, often the basis of lively if slightly anguished discussion at middle-class dinner parties, or even at outdoor restaurants virtually within earshot of the person whose need has prompted the discussion.
The giver’s dilemma
Typically, the reasons for not giving are our concern that a token dollar or two will do nothing to deal with the real reasons for the plight of the beggar. Indeed, the money may be used to maintain the substance dependency or bad habits arising from socio-economic disadvantage or emotional disorder that have led to the need to beg. And, let me own up: I believe these are often proper considerations, by which, rightly or not, I myself am largely persuaded.
At the same time, community agencies that seek to help the homeless usually depend on endless and distracting fund-raising campaigns and the efforts of volunteers. These organisations are forced to operate with resources so limited that they cannot do the work they wish - whether in the form of short-term shelter or longer-term support. They are constantly turning away those in need.
So all parties are left unsatisfied, and their needs unmet, by this situation. The beggar continues to beg, the many generous citizens who would genuinely like to help feel unable to do so, and the service providers are frustrated at constantly being short of the funds they need to do the work so clearly required.
There is a better way. I, and I am sure countless others, would be quite willing to buy, from a reliable community agency, a book of vouchers that offer a meal, shower, bed and transport - and perhaps longer or more substantial support, too. These vouchers could then in good conscience be offered to people seeking help, on the basis that those who accepted them genuinely needed, were willing to accept and would benefit from these services.
Those who declined the help the vouchers offered could be assumed to be seeking a few dollars for the sort of purposes many would-be donors remain reluctant to support.
A more hard-headed analysis would suggest these vouchers would sometimes be accepted by those who intended to trade them rather than use them - and who, paradoxically, perhaps are therefore in the greatest need of the assistance they offer. Even then the final result of that trade would be that the vouchers would end up with someone who would benefit in the way intended.
Voucher system offers broad benefits
I do not for a moment suggest that the problems of homelessness and distress can so easily be solved. However, using this method, albeit on a small scale, all three parties involved can gain.
Those in genuine need of help can receive it. Those with a true wish to be generous in an effective way can offer it. And the agencies that issue the vouchers would have a new, larger and more predictable income stream from donors than is currently available to them. That would create an opportunity to better plan and expand their services.
Perhaps such an arrangement could be developed on a collaborative basis between several agencies working in this field. Government, too, could support such a program with subsidies based on the more targeted use of funds to provide services that this approach would allow.
One current popular expression in the community sector is social enterprise. Among other things, this exhorts charities to be more business-like in their work, with more effective approaches to sustainability than reliance on government grants and donations from the public. At the same time business is urged to recognise that profitable activities should be directed at social as well as commercial purposes, and to form partnerships with community agencies.
A voucher system, with the more systematic approach it envisages to matching supply and demand in servicing a very specific market, might be one example of how this type of thinking might be advanced.