What Would Tim Do? That's what I wonder when I see the bums begging for money on the streets of London. Tim is an old friend and soon-to-be police officer. While discussing his work on the streets of Columbus, Ohio, some months ago, we asked him what, if we relented and dug out some change, a bum was likely to buy with the money he begged us for. Tim's answer was unequivocal: drugs.
If the bum really WAS hungry, Tim said, there were numerable shelters and churches throughout the city. Of course, about the only bum I ever ran into back home was the singing bum of High Street, so until I came to London I had few first-person interactions with bums.
Now, I try to channel Tim when I'm asked for "10p for the bus" or whatever. With the bums I see regularly pitched up in the same places—outside the Costcutter on Hackney Road, often instigating scuffles with other bums; camped out on the sidewalk at Borough High Street and Southwark Street on weekday mornings; with a suspiciously nice backpack across Bishopsgate from Liverpool Street Station—it's not difficult.
At other times, I actually consider donating to the cause:
—On Curtain Road, I was asked point-blank if I'd "like to contribute to the doner kebab fund." Admiring his honesty, I briefly considered, but then declined.
—On Fenchurch Street, I was given an elaborate song and dance about how he wasn't going to waste my time, he was very sorry, he was just trying to get something to eat... My jaded London heart could only think: "If you're going to ask for money, for Christ's sake get ON with it," and I shook my head no.
—On Shoreditch High Street at St Leonard's Church, as the usual schpeal was beginning, he showed me his arm and I must've literally recoiled. There was fresh blood and gnarly gashes up and down it. He just needed a few quid to, as the British phrase it, "go to hospital." I actually reached into my pocket to help but, finding no change there, politely declined and moved on.
Only once have I relented. Walking down Old Street toward the tube early one morning, I was stopped by a distraught man brandishing a South African passport and frantically explaining how he needed to get to Heathrow. For some reason, his tale moved by cold heart. I reached into my pocket and handed him a £2 coin. Only later did I wonder how he had been able to purchase a plane ticket back to South Africa but couldn't afford a tube ride. I wonder what Tim would have done?