When I was growing up in Edinburgh in the 70s and 80s there were fewer homeless people around. Mostly they were older men who hung around the Grassmarket. I remember being told they were alcoholics. A rumour did the rounds at school that they drank meths - 'You know, like in chemistry.' Today in my hometown things have changed. There is a beggar on almost every block and they are younger and sometimes female and most of them don't have issues round alcohol. In the last couple of years the problem has become more and more visible.
One of my New Year's Resolutions this year was to watch a TED talk a day. I'm a novelist and my stock in trade is ideas - so I think of these talks as yoga for the mind - a way to stretch myself. Recently I watched one by Sasha Dichter of the Acumen Fund - a non profit organisation that invests to alleviate poverty around the world. Sasha shared the results of his month-long "Generosity Experiment" where he said "yes" to every request for help. That's every personal request - he gave money out on the street.
I was inspired by this idea. Sasha said he wanted to make generosity a habit and to do that he'd have to practice. I decided to run my own generosity experiment. I walk past beggars all the time. I decided I would take out £100 - a small but not insignificant amount of money to me - and that I would give it away to 20 people at £5 a time. I wanted to see how it would make me feel - if it would change me.
The first thing I realised was that I had two latent fears - the first was that I would 'waste' my money. Handing over a fiver suddenly felt like a risk. What if the homeless person I gave it to spent the money on (horror) booze or drugs? I decided that was their call. I wasn't going to allow the spectre of those old men in the Grassmarket to haunt me. I've spent £100 on worse, I told myself and I hoped that at least some of my money would be put to good use. My second fear was that I would somehow become drawn in. That I would followed or harried or, worse, that my association with a homeless person would prove infectious and that bad luck would dog me. This was a ridiculous idea but it was there - a voice at the back of my head that whispered It can happen to anyone. It can happen to you. That's how afraid we are of poverty. I decided to walk towards my fear instead of running away from it.
It took two days to give out the money. The first person I chose was an ex-serviceman sitting on the pavement outside Vodaphone. It took him a couple of seconds to realise I had given him a note. His face lit up. 'Thank you. I can buy lunch now,' he said. That shocked me. Somewhere at the back of my mind I had the idea that beggars had at least some money in their pockets. I continued. An old man who looked as if he might cry, another guy who jumped up and was so ridiculously grateful that I had to stop the experiment for a little to get over it. A girl the same age as my daughter who smiled but didn't say anything. It did become a habit for me, quite quickly - as Sasha had said. It did change me - for the better, I think. I am more grateful for my privileges and less wary. I can't give out £100 every two days but I do give more and I feel the better for it. I feel more brave.
The nation was recently transfixed by SNP MP Mhairi Black's Maiden Speech in which she talks about a jobseeker who fainted because he hadn't eaten for five days. That such poverty exists in our country is shocking enough but that such lack of generosity exists among us is even worse. How many people could have bought that man a sandwich or given him a fiver to get some food? I'm a member of Women for Independence and my group (in Edinburgh) has started fundraising for something almost unimaginable - women who have no money to buy sanitary towels. Yes, you read that right - imagine bleeding and not having a tampon or a towel. We have now raised over £1000 to help foodbanks provide sanitary protection - if you're feeling generous you can donate.
The rise in poverty in our country is daunting because individually we can't solve the problem and our Government seems set on making it worse. During my experiment, I passed a Dad with his two young sons. One of the little boys pointed at a beggar and asked to give him a coin. 'We never EVER give money to beggars, understand?' the father grabbed the little boy by the arm and dragged him away. I gave the beggar a fiver but what I keep going back to is that little boy. His father was both angry and afraid of his suggestion - what is that child going to feel about poverty as he grows up and if he replicates his father's anger and fear how on earth are we ever going to beat it?