OPINION: Should We Give Beggars Money?
Should we care what the money we donate to beggars is spent on? It could be argued that they may use it to fund a destructive lifestyle. But then again, is it any of my business how other people spend their cash?
The other day, returning to my flat from work, I noticed a homeless man with a bushy, unkempt beard and a thick camo jacket hunched over something in the corner of the car park. He was counting what appeared to be a large number of coins; it looked like around £100. The man was no stranger; I’d seen him traipsing around the local area soliciting students for money. We acknowledged each other and he grinned and let out a nervous chuckle when I playfully suggested that he had earned more than me that day.
“I can’t get a job or benefits because I’m homeless.” he uttered with a Welsh lilt.
This bizarre encounter aside, I have noticed an increase in begging in the two city centres that I frequent. I’m not necessarily averse to it in any way; sometimes I give them some change or cigarettes and we have a brief chat. Other times I don’t; I just walk on by. If I do give them money I don’t really care what it’s spent on. I guess it would go on whatever that person really felt they needed at that time.
Begging is illegal in England and Wales under the 1824 Vagrancy Act. Just last Wednesday 46-year-old Robert Henrys, of Raymede Close, Nottingham was fined £110 for begging in Upper Parliament Street. The Guardian reports on a sharp 70% increase in such cases.
Hackney council recently rescinded their decision to implement their controversial New Public Space Protection Orders. It was designed to curb ‘anti-social activities’ such as ‘begging and rough sleeping’ using £100 fines which could rise to £1,000 if left unpaid. Their decision to backtrack on the unscrupulous policy was the result of media-led outrage, a social media backlash and a petition with 80k signatures.
Last week Superintendent Glen Mayhew, South Devon policing commander, warned the public not to assume that beggars are homeless. He told the Herald Express:
There are a number of people begging in Torbay who we know have accommodation. Those people who are not homeless are in some cases using the income from begging to fund drug and alcohol addictions.
Is that fair? Maybe there are one or two blaggers – like this guy, who was begging with £800 in his pocket – but most of the beggars I have come across certainly looked homeless.
After David Dyke, a 33-year-old man who resides at a hostel in Coventry, was banned from sitting on the pavement and asking passersby to relinquish their cash last March, homeless charity Coventry Cyrenians spoke out against paying beggars.
Mike Fowler, chief executive, said: “We have done street surveys in the past and I remember on one occasion we spoke to all the beggars in Coventry… none were homeless.” Which is fair enough but it could be argued that was just one occasion, we don’t know how big the sample was and it’s difficult to get a firm indication as to how many street beggars are actually homeless. It’s not as if people officially register as beggars.
The obvious case against handing over money – it’s almost a cliché these days – is that ‘it will be spent on drink and drugs’. This could well be the case; in 2013 the Metropolitan Police did some drug testing on people arrested for begging. They reported that between 70-80% tested positive for Class A drugs. But then again, even if a percentage of the beggars are spending the money on hard drugs, is it fair to penalise the ones who genuinely need food?
When you think about it, there are other types of begging; legal types that are totally tolerated, if not encouraged, by the powers that be. Busking, street fundraising – or ‘chuggers’ as they are known in the trade – and street performers could come under the umbrella of begging, could they not?
Is it because the people taking part in those activities are well-dressed and do not make the area come across as poverty stricken? It could be argued that the war on begging could be about attracting tourists rather than deterring anti-social behaviour.
Others may feel that if they donate to a homeless charity, some of that money will go towards paying wages, administration costs and PR, whereas if they give it directly to the person in need they can have it all. This argument is countered by the notion that if charities are well organised they will yield more donations. And then of course, there is the idea that if beggars are drug addicts, then small donations could avoid the need for them to become involved in acquisitive crime. But something is flawed if we are paying prospective criminals not to commit crime while also paying the police to prevent it.
So when you’re walking through a city centre and your eyes meet with those of an individual who looks seriously down on their luck, should you part with your shrapnel? Maybe not, it could undoubtedly be given to services that could give them what they really need in the long term, rather than what they need at that moment. Am I still going to occasionally do it? Probably. I naïvly cling to the ridiculous hope that I can take each case on its merits and spot the fakes.
If you know someone affected by homelessness, you can contact Shelter’s free housing advice helpline on 0808 800 4444 (calls are free from UK landlines and main mobile networks).
Interested in homelessness? Check out the story of homeless man Kevin O’Neill.