Begging the Question

Following the peak of public concern about homelessness every Christmas, it seems every January a politician or business leader makes a call to ban begging and the media are onto us asking what we think? BBC Radio’s You and Yours, Five Live, Politics Today plus various newspapers have been asking for interviews this week following a suggestion from Aberdeen Councillor Willie Young to make begging a criminal offence in that city punishable by a fine or prison. My first question is why does the issue of begging in particular create such media interest compared with other evidence of rising poverty levels, such as the proliferation of food banks, pawn brokers and pay day cheque shops?

Homeless+beggingFor Cllr Young and, this time last year, Ivan Artolli, general manager of the five-star Balmoral in Edinburgh, the issue is that beggars spoil the look of our prestigious city streets and are an embarrassment. I agree. It is embarrassing that a modern, civilised society and modern city should have citizens who are destitute and forced into the ignominy of begging. But there’s the real question: are they really destitute and left ‘hungry and homeless’ by a failed welfare system? Or are we – and they – victims of professional begging rackets run by Fagin-like  gangmasters? Or are they sad-souls who may not be exactly ‘hungry and homeless’ or penniless but are caught in the grip of addictions that need to be fed by the added hand-outs as a better alternative to shop-lifting or other crime? There is probably truth in all three scenaria. So what should be done?

We have been saying this week that the first thing is to go out and find out more about the people and their stories. (At least the Daily Record went and did that this week). There are trained voluntary sector befrienders who can go to where people are begging and extend a hand-up, not just a hand-out, and in the process find out more about the trusth of the situation. Better to spend money on outreach and befriending than on arresting and processing beggars through the criminal justice system. (I would be interested in anyone could put a figure on the cost of that?). Criminalising people already on the margins of society will do nothing to help and create more problems than it would solve.

Journalists always ask me: Would you advise people to not give to beggars? I hold that this is a matter of choice. Our default position is towards the hand-up, not the hand out, so maybe offering a few minutes conversation and advice to use the services in our community will serve you to decide if you want to pass on a few coins. Our friends at Thamesreach have taken a stronger line, arguing that anything you give is feeding a drink or drug habit – but for me that’s too much a blanket view. Other charities say to donate what you’d give to beggars straight to the charity but I find that a bit self serving in tone.

Cyrenians first and last position on the subject is to promote compassion towards people. Whether they’re actually destitute or ‘just’ the victim of an addiction or being used to make money, they deserve respect as our fellow human beings and whatever the cause it can be no fun sitting on cold, wet pavements gathering pennies and putting aside their pride. If you don’t want to give money, fine, but they don’t need your disdain and imprisonment will be costly and unproductive.

Des Ryan, CEO


One Comment on “Begging the Question”

  1. Liz Law says:

    Last week I was going around charity shops in Portobello looking for a coat rack. I realised I was following and older woman who was dressed in clothing often associated with Eastern Europe. In the first shop I noticed she asked for a discount on the ticket price and was politely refused. In the second shop I was shocked when I overheard an interaction between a someone behind the counter to the same woman who was asking for a discount on the price on the bedding. When the woman left the shop the assistant said to another customer that the previous week the same woman had done the same thing and then proceeded to beg from customers. I had thought this would be an issolated incident however in a third charity shop the person behind the counter made a remark about the behaviour of a British Asian who was in the shop with her crying child. On this occasion I was able to politely challenge the sotto voiced comment. I was left with a concern about hardening attitudes to others and a fear that we are only just beginning to see the aggression towards people who behave differently. If charity shops cannot engage with respect what hope is there for the rest of us.

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