Last month I helped launch a new campaign, Help Us Help, drawing attention to people who are begging on the streets of Sheffield. Help Us Help looks at ways everybody can support people who have found it necessary to beg.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of people on our streets asking for money over the past two or three years. Recently, walking through town from my base at the Cathedral Archer Project to the train station, I passed seven people asking for money, all sitting quietly to the side of the street. All looked in a poor state of health and in need of support. In days gone by, when my work wasn’t directly to do with homelessness, it’s likely that I would have given them enough money to buy a sandwich. Even though I knew the money I gave could be spent on alcohol or drugs, I didn’t want to just walk by.

This is the central issue that any campaign which focuses on begging and the lives of those who beg has to address: How do we hold together our need to be compassionate and our need to do the right thing, to genuinely help a person in need?

One perspective is that people who give money to those who beg are meeting the need directly in front of them. They are being compassionate and we want to live in a city where people care. We want people to be helpful. At the same time, there is significant evidence that giving people money is more likely to keep them on the street and reduce their life expectancy than it is to help them to get away from the street and into a healthy life.

Help Us Help, which is backed by the charities and agencies who work directly with people on our streets, is very clear that people should give and should not be criticised for giving. But giving achieves most when it’s informed giving.

To make informed choices, people need information. Through www.helpushelp.uk, we can share up to date information we believe is useful. How many people are known to be begging and/or sleeping rough in Sheffield? What help is there for people on our streets? Who provides help and what do they actually do? Do people stop begging when things improve for them? What happens to those who continue to rely on begging? And, most importantly, what can people do to help?

Making a difference takes time. People who become street homeless and turn to begging often have a number of issues they struggle to overcome. It’s rarely as simple as getting somewhere to live. Agencies like the one I work for do a lot of unseen work, work which recognises the complexity but also the possibility of helping somebody to move away from the street, step by step and day by day. It involves many different agencies, large and small, who collaborate to build and deliver support networks around individual people.

We want people to know this work goes on and that many of these agencies rely on volunteers and donations of all kinds. There are ways each of us can help.

Finally, we want people to know that most of those on the street eventually move away from street life. I have heard many speak of their gratitude for the help that made it possible for them. The sadness is that some don’t. Help Us Help is a campaign full of hope – hope that together we will help more people to build enjoyable and fulfilling lives away from the street.

If you or someone you know is sleeping rough, phone StreetLink on 0300 500 0914 to find out about local services.

helpushelp.uk

Tim Renshaw