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Why you should give money directly and unconditionally to homeless people

Who are you to judge what they do with that cash?

Give your cash directly and unconditionally to homeless people.

Don’t just buy them a sandwich from Pret. They’re not four. They have the right to spend their money as they choose – and it is their money, once given. Don’t just give to people performing, singing, or accompanied by a cute dog. Buskers deserve a wage too, of course. But homeless people are not your dancing monkey and they shouldn’t have to perform to earn your pity.

Don’t second-guess whether people are “really” homeless. Those who think begging is a shortcut to easy money should try humiliating themselves daily in front of thousands of total strangers who won’t even look at them or acknowledge their existence. It is gruelling, soul-destroying work. If people are desperate enough to beg, they need it.

Don’t just give to people who ask you directly, but to the guy with his head in his hands and a Styrofoam cup on the ground in front of him. Give to the woman who’s blind drunk. Give to the guy with meth-rotted teeth. Give to the spice addict who can’t look you in the eye.

Many street beggars are addicts, yes. Do addicts not deserve food? Wouldn’t you want to drink if you were in their position? Don’t you get drunk every weekend to cope with work stress anyway? Who are you to tell them what to do with their bodies?

As the founder of User Voice, a charity led and staffed by former homeless addicts, says: “If your money funds the final hit, accept that the person would rather be dead. If your act of kindness makes him wake up the next morning and decide to change his life, that’s nice but not your business either.”

Of course, it is true that your drinking habit and theirs are fundamentally different. Addiction is rooted in material circumstance – alcohol is the obvious example, but think how many skiing accidents end in courses of opiates far stronger than anything you’d find on the street without any long-term compulsion developing. It can only be tackled by raising people out of poverty, and a brute-force severing of cash flow is not going to starve people into seeking help from authorities they know will not, or cannot, help them.

Yet this abject morality, which says we must push people to rock bottom before we are able to help them, is seized on by austerity governments always greedy to do less. In fact, studies show begging emerges in the “middle-late stages” of homelessness, once people have already exhausted other options. The rock bottom has already been reached.

Eighty per cent of homeless people in the UK experienced no support or advice the last time they were moved on by police or council workers. When the government claims that most people begging on the street are refusing better help, what they mean is the help on offer is not adequate.

Homeless people need free, state-provided housing and fully-funded psychological care. What they get is £538m annual cuts to mental health services and austerity measures driving them into arrears with private landlords and on to the street.

The average life expectancy of a homeless man in London is 47. For women, it is 43. This is lower than the general life expectancy of any nation on the planet. These lives will be improved by systemic, not loose, change. 

In the absence of an adequate government response, charitable giving and hostels remain lifesavers to many thousands of people. But big homelessness charities are already receiving millions yearly, while those deemed impossible to help die outside. When I speak to rough sleepers, it is local communities, squatters and grassroots organisations like the London-wide Streets Kitchen which they credit with keeping them alive.

“There is no need to beg on the streets in 2017,” leading London homelessness charity Thames Reach claims. “Hostel rent is covered through Housing Benefit [and] it is an urban myth that if you have no address, you cannot claim benefits.”

The charity, which is primarily funded by the government, makes no mention of the many gatekeeping barriers vulnerable people must cross to secure benefits and a stable hostel place.

Most damningly, they do not mention the fact that the foreign nationals who make up over half of London’s rough-sleeping population cannot claim benefits to access the hostel network at all. Rather, Thames Reach and other top charities shop homeless foreigners to the Home Office to be deported.

It is those same government-funded charities that push the narrative that “kindness kills” as they tout for your donations. Do not believe them. Apathy and austerity kill. Your kindness saves lives.

Matt Broomfield is a journalist and activist. He tweets @hashtagbroom

The University Challenge final. Photo: BBC iPlayer
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Why University Challenge is deliberately asking more questions about women

Question setters and contestants on how the show finally began to gender-balance its questions – and whether it’s now harder as a result.

University Challenge has long had a gender problem. When the show first started airing in 1962, some Oxbridge colleges were still refusing to admit women as undergraduates; in the decades since, women have been consistently outnumbered by men, with all-male teams still a regular occurrence. Those women that did appear were all too regularly criticised and objectified in equal measure by audiences: notable contestants like Hannah Rose Woods, Emma Johnson, Samantha Buzzard and Sophie Rudd have experienced intense media scrutiny and criticised the sexism of the show and audiences. In recent years, sexism rows have dogged the show.

How satisfying, then, to see two women carrying their teams in last night’s final: Rosie McKeown for winners St John’s, Cambridge, and Leonie Woodland for runners-up Merton, Oxford. Both secured the majority of points for their teams – McKeown with visible delight, Woodland looking unsure even as she delivered correct answer after correct answer.

But there is another site of sexism on University Challenge, one that earns less column inches: the questions. Drawing on all areas of history, science, language, economics and culture, the questions often concern notable thinkers, artists, scientists, and sportspeople. Of course, our society’s patriarchal hierarchies of achievement have meant that the subjects of these questions are mostly men. General knowledge is, after all, a boys’ club.

Over the course of this 2017-8 series, though, I noticed a shift. More women than ever seemed to be making their way into the questions, at times with deliberate reference to the inherent sexism of their lack of cultural prominence. On 5 February, there was a picture round devoted to female composers, with contestents asked to identify Clara Schumann, Ethel Smyth, Rachel Portman and Bjork from photographs, who, Paxman explained, are all “women that are now listed in the EdExcel A Level music syllabus after the student Jessy McCabe petitioned the exam board in 2015.” Episodes have included bonus rounds on “prominent women” (the writer Lydia Davis, the pilot Lydia Litvyak, and the golfer Lydia Ko), “women born in the 1870s and 80s” (Rosa Luxemburg, Elizabeth Arden and Vanessa Bell), and the female philosophers Mary Midgely, Philippa Foot and Iris Murdoch.

Elsewhere, questions raise a knowing eyebrow at the patriarchal assumptions behind so much of intellectual endeavour. A music round on famous rock bands quoted the music critic Kelefa Sanneh’s definition “rockism”: “the belief that white macho guitar music is superior to all other forms of popular music”. Another, on opera, quoted Catherine Clement’s Opera, Or The Undoing of Women, which explores how traditional opera plots frequently feature “the infinitely repetitive spectacle of a woman who dies”. “Your music bonuses are three such operas,” Paxman said dryly, to audience laughter.

University Challenge’s questions editor Thomas Benson confirms that there has been a deliberate attempt to redress a gender imbalance in the quiz. “About three years ago, a viewer wrote in to point out that a recent edition of the programme had contained very few questions on women,” he explains. “We agreed and decided to do something about it.”

Last night’s final included a picture round on artists with works concerning motherhood (Mary Casatt, Lousie Bourgeois, Leanora Carrington and Frida Kahlo) and a music round on Marin Alsop, the first woman to ever conduct the Last Night of the Proms, as well as sets of bonuses on the American writer Willa Kather and Byzantine historian and princess Anna Komnene.

Former winner Hannah Rose Woods is delighted by the increase in such questions. “I think it’s fantastic!” she tells me. “These things are really important in changing people’s perceptions about women in the past, and the way women’s contributions to science and the arts have often been written out of history. We need to keep challenging the idea of the White Male Canon.”

Last night’s winner Rosie McKeown says that while she didn’t necessarily notice a deliberate attempt to gender balance the questions, she was “very pleased with the quality of those questions that did come up”.

“Although it wasn’t in one of our matches,” she tells me, “I thought the picture round on female composers was especially good for highlighting women’s achievements.”

For all the enthusiasm for these questions, in the studio they’re often met with blank stares. While University Challenge questions are broad and imaginatively posed, there are some reliable revision topics and techniques: from Nobel laureates and the years of their wins to identifying famous paintings and classical music excerpts. McKeown says she has been a religious viewer of the show since she was 11 years old, and admits to watching reruns of the show to prepare. Shift the kinds of answers you might be looking for, and teams may struggle.

“Do we know any female British composers?” Leonie Woodland said weakly, looking at a picture of Ethel Smyth. Trying to come up with a female Muslim Nobel laureate, one contestant desperately suggested Aung San Suu Kyi. Asked to provide a first name linking an American concert pianist with the sister of Lazarus one male contestant still buzzed in with “Daniel”.

“Even if we didn’t always get them right,” McKeown tells me, citing that round on female philosophers, which saw them pass on every question, as an example, “it was great to see so many important female figures represented.”

“I don't think the questions about women necessarily affected our performance, but it’s certainly a very good thing that they were there and I hope that they’ll arouse people’s interest in the women featured and in their achievements.”

Benson believes that it hasn’t had a significant effect on performance. “The great majority of the questions that feature women are no different to any others, in that they sit firmly within the realm of standard academic general knowledge.”

He notes that they often refer to historical and background details, citing sets of bonuses on Canadian novelist Ruth Ozeki and British physicist Hertha Ayrton, which both teams answered correctly in full. “Though Ozeki and Ayrton may not be household names, the questions are definitely answerable and deal with central themes in their work and achievements.”

It’s easy to brush off the significance of a fairly geeky Monday night BBC quiz show, but University Challenge still regularly pulls in three million viewers. In any case, a show like University Challenge has a cultural significance that outweighs its viewing figures. It helps to shape our understanding of which subjects are intellectual or important, which are history’s most notable achievements, and who is worth learning about. To ignore questions of identity is to risk intellectual laziness, relying on tired ideas of canonical figures – or worse, supremacist propaganda, privileging the achievements of white men over all others.

Quite aside from making for less predictable and more enjoyable television, by including questions on the likes of Stevie Smith, Nella Larsen, Gertrude Stein, Myra Hess, Margaret Mead, and Beryl Bainbridge, University Challenge can diversify the mental encyclopaedias of its viewers, be it a tweed-wearing 60-year-old in Leamington Spa or an 11-year-old like Rosie McKeown with her own dreams of one day competing. It has a responsibility to do so.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.