EVERY time I walk past a homeless person, either begging or having given up on their luck, I feel guilty. Part of me - the cynical side - thinks that they would misuse any money I might give them: I think everybody has such thoughts from time to time. But the other part of me feels very, truly selfish. It doesn't make the slightest bit of difference what my financial situation is, and it doesn't matter what got that person into the difficult scenario they find themselves in: I can help, and every time I go past and don't help in some way, that makes me a very bad person.
When I was in Boston last year, I got a bit confused with how to use a tram ticket machine and found myself with a pocket full of heavy dollar coins (18 of them, in fact). I ended up giving a lot of them away to homeless people - partly because they were heavy, and partly because Boston is ruddy freezing in December and if in any way I can help somebody survive that, then I was going to try.
Back here though, I became cynical again. Too protective of my loose change. But I still feel guilty, and on Sunday I decided to help a guy I've walked past many times in Birmingham... only to discover that all I had on me was 30 pence.
Instantly I felt guilty for the completely opposite reason. Which is ruder, to ignore a homeless person, or to get their hopes up and then hand them a pile of five pence pieces?
He seemed very friendly, and we had a nice chat about life, London and loneliness. And then I ran away, conscious of the fact that, after all that, I probably hadn't really helped him at all.