Claire Gibson: Criminalising our poor will change precisely nothing

Picture: LEON McGOWRAN

Picture: LEON McGOWRAN

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Do we want people begging on our streets? Is begging something a civilised society should tolerate? Easy answer – no.

It cannot be right that people who, but for fortune, could be our friends or neighbours are wasting their lives on the streets. Would making begging illegal stop that? No. People in desperate circumstances do desperate things, and making their lives worse by adding in more conflict with the law is not the answer.

Moving the problem from the streets into courts and prisons would be a quick but costly fix that solves nothing.

For most people begging, the need for drugs overrides any plan for a life off the street. The routes off the street for people are employment, training, accommodation and healthy relationships and any by-law would put these solutions further out of reach.

For 365 days a year, Streetwork is on the streets reaching out to people in crisis. People begging, sleeping rough, running away and selling sex, or at risk of these issues put nearly 4000 people in touch with Streetwork last year alone.

Not in Scotland – just in Edinburgh – no-one in the city can turn away from these issues. We don’t wait for people to come to us, we go out to them, on the streets, and focus on immediate problems with the aim of enabling their life beyond the street.

What the person begging writes on his or her placard does not begin to cover the issues in their lives. In our experience, begging is the end stage where the person has lost track of the many complex problems dragging their lives down.

Look closer, and the crisis and vulnerability caused by the breakdown of relationships, escape from physical, mental or sexual abuse, addiction to alcohol or other drugs, redundancy, unemployment and poverty are the reasons that someone is on the streets.

In our experience, it is rarely a choice entered in to freely and
willingly.

Unlike rough sleeping, which is often hidden out of sight, begging is an issue for everyone in Edinburgh and stories about organised and aggressive begging and the perception of eastern Europeans begging make
it difficult to see the reality of the problem.

In our experience on the streets, the majority of people begging are local to Edinburgh and are UK citizens. Yes, there are growing numbers of eastern Europeans, but the numbers of locals far outweigh those of migrants. Our work also tells us that people begging are not necessarily homeless, but that addiction drives the need to beg and the chaos and desperation of addiction lead to housing crisis and rough sleeping.

Should we give money to people begging? Our view is that a hand-up is a better long-term option than a hand-out.

Giving help starts the long climb out; giving cash ensures they sink lower – if only by feeding drug and alcohol needs. We offer a sandwich and a coffee – not to satisfy hunger but to start the human contact that will bring a realistic solution within sight for that individual.

We agree with those concerned about tourism, retail and the attractiveness of our city’s streets – it is in no one’s interest, not least the person begging, to leave him or her on the street.

We want to bring together our mutual concerns. Our solution is a collaborative and local one. A life off the streets for people begging will not happen as a result of a by-law.

It is possible with a co-ordinated and resourced solution to ensure that people are not pushed into costly prison cells, but into addiction
services and other specialist services that treat the cause and not the
symptom.

The challenges faced by our city are unprecedented. Welfare reform, service cuts, unemployment and the shortage of housing will all contribute to more begging, more homelessness and more rough sleeping.

We have a culture in Edinburgh for concern for our fellow citizens and are reminded of this everyday when members of the public phone Streetwork concerned about someone they have seen on the streets.

I’ve not filled this piece with statistics – but here is one: last year the average life expectancy for rough sleepers in the UK was 47 years – in Edinburgh the average age of death was 39 years. Edinburgh citizens should regard it as a mark of civilisation and pride that we care for our city and do not pass by on the other side.

Compassion, not criminalisation, is the answer to begging.

• Claire Gibson is the chief executive of Streetwork

WHAT HAPPENS ELSEWHERE?

IRELAND: Anti-begging laws introduced in 2011 enable police to move on anyone begging near auto tellers, night safes or shop entrances. It is also illegal to beg in an aggressive, intimidating or threatening manner.

UNITED STATES: Several cities have tried to outlaw begging – or “panhandling” – or create no-go zones for beggars, but the courts have repeatedly ruled such moves breach the First Amendment right to free expression.

AUSTRALIA: Earlier this month, an anti-begging initiative was launched in Melbourne by the city council, police and the Salvation Army, aiming to use CCTV and better co-ordinated prosecutions to step up action against professional beggars, while helping those genuinely down on their luck.

FRANCE: Former president Nicolas Sarkozy banned begging on the Champs Elysees and other key spots in the centre of Paris.

PORTUGAL: Begging is not illegal. Favourites spots include outside Catholic churches.