Go easy with that Christmas spirit. Don’t make a fool of yourself. Think. When a poor man comes in sight, don’t immediately reach into your pocket for change, but prepare to run as fast as you can in the opposite direction.

“Man” in this context is not gender-specific, of course. The poor man who came in sight when I was walking through central London at the beginning of Advent was a woman, a homeless thirty­-something, with a thin, raddled face and bad teeth. I asked her what the problem was. She told me she’d just been discharged from hospital, where she had been treated for pancreatic cancer. She was now in remission, she said, and wanted somewhere to sleep other than

the street.

I gave her a pound and asked her why she was homeless. Money, she said. She wanted to get into the hostel down the road but couldn’t because she didn’t have the money – £18.60 – to secure herself a bed. What about social services? She couldn’t get any benefits, she said, until she had accommodation … but she couldn’t get accommodation until she had the benefits to pay for it.

Moved by a spirit of wheedling self-interest – “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” – and by a worm of guilt, I offered to give the woman the £18.60 if she would allow me to accompany her to the hostel and watch her hand over the money. To my surprise, she accepted.

Once at the hostel, however, things got tricky. My homeless friend said I could not accompany her to reception because that was for women residents only. She said she would go upstairs and hand over the £20 I had given her, and then return to me with the change and a receipt.

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