Giving the homeless crumbs from the table
Who could object to making a £1 donation to the homeless as you pay for your meal in a fancy restaurant? Frequent diner Justine Brian could.
For those of you who dine in restaurants in the run-up to Christmas, in any one of 15 towns and areas around the UK, you may notice a small orange card in the middle of your table, probably nestled between the butter dish and the salt and pepper.
The cards are from StreetSmart, the charity for homeless people that kicks into action each winter. The scheme, which has been running for almost a decade, was set up by William Sieghart, chairman of the Forward Arts Foundation, and Mary-Lou Sturridge, director of the Groucho Club, a trendy arts and media hangout in London. The basic premise is that restaurants signing up to StreetSmart will add an optional £1 to each bill presented to customers. This money is then passed on to StreetSmart, which says the entire £1 donation is used for charitable purposes. All administrative costs are covered by the scheme’s sponsors, including Deutsche Bank.
As writer and actor Stephen Fry says on the StreetSmart card: ‘Good food, good wine and good company enrich our lives beyond measure. Most of us don’t say Grace these days because we don’t know who to thank for the inestimable pleasures of the table. StreetSmart lets us do a graceful thing. A simple thing. A kind thing.’
I first spotted the StreetSmart card a while ago while enjoying a meal with friends, and found myself genuinely outraged. I’m not sure my fellow diners understood quite why I felt so strongly, but I was probably spitting breadcrumbs all over them as I raved. Some might say I was being curmudgeonly. What difference does £1 make on the overall cost of a meal, and who could object to giving to the homeless? If I cared that much why didn’t I just ask for a revised bill, minus the £1 donation? Well, I could have done, but that’s not the point. It’s not the £1 I object to, nor the cause that the money is being raised for, but how the money is being raised.
There are two worrying things about StreetSmart: the politicising of my meal out; and the way it embodies the trend for individuals to make ‘social statements’ without even having to think about them: in this case ‘helping the homeless’ by giving the nod to an extra quid being add to one’s bill. How passive can you get? The reality is that very few people are going to make a scene in a restaurant about £1 being added to their bill. It just seems petty, right? The restaurant and the charity therefore effectively enforce a donation on the customer.
But this enforced act of giving to charity assumes that in the process of having a meal, of enjoying myself, I also need to be socially responsible, contributing to those less fortunate than me. It’s the very embodiment of the ‘with freedom comes responsibility’ mantra. Eating out with friends is a private, personal act (albeit in a public venue). But eating out is not a political act. Where and what I choose to eat is not a statement about me or my political beliefs.
Yet StreetSmart fits into a contemporary trend of expressing one’s politics, values and morality through consumerism – what you buy, where you shop, knowing the name of the farmer who reared your piece of steak, etc. One of StreetSmart’s selling points to restaurants for participating in the scheme is that they get ‘publicity and demonstrate their social conscience’.
The StreetSmart card
Restaurants with social consciences? I thought they were private money-making enterprises. If restaurants want to show their social consciences, they could ensure that all their staff are fabulously paid, that the working conditions are great, and that all profits made are returned to the community. The reason they don’t is because that’s not what restaurants are there for. If we were to pursue the ‘social conscience’ thing to its logical conclusion, then why not simply open restaurants up to the homeless, giving them some free, and damn good, lunches and dinners?
My gripe is against being told that, in the spirit of Christmas good cheer while I’m out enjoying myself, I need to take a moment to think of those less fortunate. And, of course, it really will only be a moment’s thought. I don’t need to pursue thoughts about poverty or inequality any further, because the whole social conscience thing is done for me, more often than not without me even noticing.
That’s the other thing I find objectionable. The human impulse to be charitable to others is a good one: our capacity for empathy is one of the things that makes us human. But StreetSmart ensures that you don’t need even to think about the social problem you are helping to alleviate. Your act of benevolence therefore becomes a mindless statement. Why ponder on thorny questions like: ‘Why are those people homeless?’ – the restaurant will do your thinking for you. You could have the homeless come round and beg for a pound or two at your restaurant tables, but that would just put you off your meal, I guess.
On its website, StreetSmart says that homelessness isn’t a ‘”cute” cause, so it’s hard to feel empathy for something most of us are fortunate enough never to have endured’. I disagree. Homelessness is not a controversial cause; in fact it has been made into a rather cute and trendy cause by numerous anti-poverty activists today. We can all empathise with someone huddling in doorways on a cold night. Helping the homeless is a far easier thing to understand than the work of, say, the Alzheimer’s Society, or Incontact (the ‘leading national organisation that provides information and support to people with bladder and bowel problems’) or the Fisherman’s Mission (‘Caring for those who risk their lives to feed the nation’). Those issues would, after all, require some explanation. No, it’s the immediacy of the homeless as you go to, from and between restaurants and get on with day-to-day life that strikes a chord with the population.
The whole premise of StreetSmart is that in the act of doing something very enjoyable – eating out with friends and family – we need to atone for our enjoyment (but just a little bit) by giving to the obvious poor. This really is the ‘crumbs from the table’. StreetSmart talks of harnessing the ‘good cheer’ we all feel at Christmas, and so who could really object to donating £1 to a good cause? I don’t doubt that the money is welcomed by the charities who receive the funds raised, but if I want to change the world and make it a better place I will need to start by at least thinking about it, trying to understand it and debating it with other people.
Pursuing such discussions over nice food and plentiful wine is a good place to start. However, StreetSmart’s do-good-by-default approach simply short-circuits that thoughtful, debating process.
Justine Brian is national administrator of the UK schools debating competition, Debating Matters.
Nathalie Rothschild said it was time to unwrap Oxfam Unwrapped and asked whether air passengers really deserved eco-guilt as in-flight entertainment. Sadhavi Sharma argued that gift aid at Christmas only reinforced Third World poverty. The Amex card launched by Bono made Daniel Ben-Ami see red. Austin Williams proclaimed: Down with carbon colonialism. Or read more at spiked issue Modern Life.
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