News that Westminster council plans to ban soup runs for the homeless is being roundly condemned. Rightly so. Arresting people for giving homeless people food and drink is illiberal, counterproductive and punishes the poor for being poor. Homelessness is a social evil that the state has failed to alleviate, and this legislation will simply make things worse by limiting the powers of private individuals to help them. Moreover, it interferes with personal autonomy in the name of a collective squeamishness about homelessness.
Let's give the council the benefit of the doubt. I suppose the objective is to disincentivize sleeping rough, trying to get homeless people into shelters. Conventional solutions to homelessness are, in some cases, futile. Shelter organizations like Centrepoint do excellent work, but there are a few cases where the homeless person has an extreme aversion to being indoors. (Often this is associated with mental illness.) In these cases, stopping soup runs will only make them more miserable by forcing them to choose between a shelter and rooting around in bins for food. If Westminster council seriously wants to help homeless people, limiting the choices available to them is not the way to go about it.
But this is not simply a harm reduction issue, it’s a question of individual autonomy and the role of private charity in society. Homelessness is not illegal, and it shouldn’t be. If a person isn’t harming anybody by sleeping rough, they are no more at fault than someone who spends his day reading on a park bench. And I harm no-one by giving privately to whom I see fit, whether it’s through giving coins or donating to a soup run outfit. As a private citizen it should be my right to do with my property whatever I choose.
Private charity has a vital role to play in alleviating poverty – in fact, if the state gave it some room, it might do things a lot better than government does. And forget the “Big Society” buzzwords – we don’t need the state to nudge us into being good and helping people. What we do need is for the state to get out of the way of private charity, and not try to “pick winners” among charities. The world is too complex, and private liberty too important, for state bodies like Westminster council to use the law to herd people into the outcomes it wants.