Any Spare Change?

'We're all in this together?'

‘We’re all in this together?’

There’s nothing quite like a Tory gaffe to brighten a Monday morning is there? And thankfully they appear to have become a weekly occurrence since the Coalition government took the helm – Thankfully! You gotta take the silver linings where you see them I guess.

In this week’s installment, The Independent jumped on the back of MP Daniel Kawczynski who, it is reported, told a one legged drug addict in a wheelchair begging outside Parliament to ‘get a job’.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love watching the Conservatives backtracking, apologising and tripping over the feet lodged permanently in their mouths as much as the next person, but on this occasion, as much as it pains me to say it, I can kinda see his point.

Firstly, Kawczynski was not speaking with a silver spoon in his mouth when he told Mark McGuigan to get a job. Having grown up in Peckham with an outhouse and two alcoholic parents, he’s not unjustified in his admonishment of the beggar, knowing all too well how difficult it can be to dig yourself out of the poverty hole. McGuigan claimed to have felt intimidated and ‘very small’ by the ‘sanctimonious’ and aggressive tone Kawczynski used in offering to help him get back into work or onto a Government scheme that might improve his literacy and numeracy. He claimed that the MP towered over him, humiliating him by asking what he was doing to find a job. Granted, Kawczynski is an imposing 6ft8in and would make any upright being of average height feel small, never mind a one legged man in a wheelchair, but I would question whether McGuigan felt humiliated by the asking of the question ‘What are you doing to find a job?’ or by the answering of it.

I expect every city has its own throng of drunks, drug addicts and homeless who, through a series of unfortunate events, have been reduced to begging on the street. Having worked in a bar on Seel Street I am practically on first name terms with Liverpool’s band of drunks and junkies who trudge up and down from the Sisters of Mercy to Eurowines, picking up discarded fag ends and approaching any kind looking soul who might spare them a few coins to put towards a tinnie. I’ve watched it happen. A “‘scuse me mate…”, a huddle around a handful of coppers, and the quickening determination of the shuffle towards the offie. I’ve hounded the slurring drunks out of the toilets, scolded those who rip open the wall mounted cigarette bins to loot for fags, and been accosted outside the off licence for any spare change. Which comedian was it who joked that they refused to give money to beggars who will only spend it on drink and drugs even if that’s all they would spend it on themselves? It’s the source of a great deal of guilt for a lot of us, our blue plastic bag of bottles clinking past the open palms outside the off licence. We turn for the warmth of home where we’ll enjoy a glass of wine in front of the telly, pyjamas on and feet up, and we can’t spare a measly quid for this poor soul to procure something that might warm his bones when he lays them down in a doorway for the night.

Being young, employed in the services industry and indebted to the tune of one undergraduate degree, I am, naturally, skint. I struggle enough to pay my own rent, bills and bar tab without taking costly bad habits of others. There are many, many reasons why I don’t do heroin, cost being just one of them, so if I can’t afford to be a recreational drug user why should I fund anyone else’s addiction?

That’s not to say that they don’t have my sympathy. That anyone in the 21st century should find themselves on the streets is a disgrace. It isn’t a choice that anyone makes, it is a last resort for those with nowhere else to turn, and sadly it is often the gateway to a much darker, hopeless existence.

One of my earliest memories is of an Eastern European woman begging in Dublin city centre. My mum and I would pass her everyday as we walked to the bus, she cradled a small baby in her arms and was usually accompanied by at least one other grubby faced child. Older and more cynical, I now doubt whether all those children were hers, or if the money she received went towards feeding them, but regardless my mum spared her whatever change she could, even though we weren’t exactly living in the lap of luxury.

I have never seen a begging mother or grubby faced child on the streets of Liverpool, but there have been a few fresh faced boys, young and desperate, and most importantly, sober, who have pulled on my heartstrings. Over a year ago a middle aged woman carrying a shopping bag stopped me on my way to work asking for change for the bus, she’d left herself short after getting her shopping, it was all she had. I had replied that I had no change and walked away before I’d even thought through what she was asking. It was automatic, refuse and retreat from anyone on the street asking for money or offering to tell you about the plight of rhinos in Africa. I suffered a guilty conscience for the rest of the night. That poor woman probably ended up walking home in the cold to a cold, dingy council flat. I was ashamed of myself. A few weeks later the same woman stopped me again around the same time of day, in the same spot, again asking for spare change for the bus. This time she was drunk, and the shopping bag, I noticed, was clinking. I passed her by again. I’ve seen her a few times since in similar states of intoxication, appealing for spare change.

I am less ashamed of myself.

What a difference the drink makes.

But the drunks and the drug addicts do need change, perhaps more so than others. Had I the disposable income, I would gladly donate it to the Saint Vincent de Paul or Sisters of Mercy or any other charitable fund that helps the less fortunate in any way other than buying their next hit. These people have been let down by the government, whether in education, employment, benefits or health. Mark McGuigan, for example, considered himself unemployable because of poor literacy and numeracy, because of his disability, but it shouldn’t be the case. There are schemes in place to improve these skills, there is legislation to prevent prejudice against the disabled and there are rehabilitation programmes out there for people struggling with addiction – there are plenty of people there to help, the problem is you must first be willing to help yourself, and with addicts that is often the greatest challenge.

But as to Daniel Kawczynski, perhaps the first ever Tory to evoke my empathy, I will offer a defence. The media will attack him for being insensitive, superior and out of touch with the real world but I commend him for adopting a tough love attitude on those who need it most. Here is an MP actually offering help to someone in need, providing firsthand advice, a handson effort to change someone’s life for the better – isn’t that what we want from our MPs?

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