Call to ban beggars from Edinburgh city centre

Leanne says most beggars don't harm anyone.  Picture: NEIL HANNA
Leanne says most beggars don't harm anyone. Picture: NEIL HANNA
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BUSINESS chiefs are calling for begging to be banned from the city centre under radical plans to enhance the shopping quarter.

The controversial proposal seeks to introduce a by-law to clear beggars from the streets and create a harassment-free retail district.

Essential Edinburgh – which runs the city-centre business improvement district – is set to launch a petition prohibiting begging from the commercial heart of the Capital after complaints by traders and tourists.

But a homeless charity has warned the new law would only serve to criminalise society’s most vulnerable.

The move comes just days after an aggressive elderly beggar faced court for tormenting two women in an episode branded “absolutely outrageous” by a sheriff.

The Edinburgh model would be based on a blueprint by Aberdeen City Council which is angling to establish a begging and busking by-law in the Granite City. Shopkeepers back the Edinburgh begging ban, believing it would boost trade and produce a more pleasant retail environment.

Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “We want to make begging illegal on the streets of Edinburgh and support that with help for those that feel the need to beg.

“You need both these things in combination to make it work. We note that Aberdeen has looked at bringing in legislation and we will wait to see how they structure that.”

He believes traders – who lose business when beggars camp outside their shop – and shoppers should not have to fear aggressive street people who ask for loose change.

“Shoppers just want to avoid them and in the process avoid the store as well. We also know that hotels have had feedback from guests of different cultures and nationalities saying they were upset by seeing begging and think there are other crimes or underworld activities going on that they should be afraid off.”

Under current legislation, police action can only occur if a beggar is aggressive or commits a breach of the peace.

Mr Neal said: “Police can only move beggars on if they break some other law. Unless they are abusive or aggressive, the police have few powers. We are looking to balance the carrot and stick. Create new legislation and have support for those who are begging on the street. Of course, there are people who have real difficulties and I feel sorry for the way they end up sitting on the street in a pretty terrible state. It would be our aim to try and help them by recruiting the assistance of charities that specialise in caring for these people.”

Kevin Simpson, store manager at Scribbler card shop, said a man regularly begs next to their Princes Street outlet. “He sits outside Barratts and we’re next door – so that’s far away enough for us,” he said. “We heard about this proposal quite a while ago and nothing ever happened about it but it can only be a good thing for retailers. I’m sure the beggars would just go somewhere else and this would be a problem elsewhere – the by-law would just pass on the problem.”

Homeless charity Edinburgh Cyrenians, which helps 3000 people a year overcome poverty and find accommodation, said a blanket ban on begging addressed symptoms, rather than the disease.

“We need to talk to people begging to inform our understanding about why it seems to be on the increase again,” a spokesman said. “We do not believe that anyone begs as a lifestyle choice or cynically exploit a caring public, but are prepared for the evidence that tells us differently. ”

Streetwork, which runs a crisis centre for homeless people, said they would work together with Essential Edinburgh to bring about “meaningful” change for those living on the streets. Chief executive Claire Gibson said: “Essential Edinburgh’s aim is very similar to ours, though they are approaching it from a commercial perspective. Streetwork doesn’t underestimate the impact begging can have on communities, tourism and on commerce. But from our perspective, begging is similar to homelessness in that is a symptom of underlying unmet needs such as unemployment, addiction and mental health.” And she added: “Criminalisation of street-begging would exacerbate the problem.”

A spokeswoman for Edinburgh City Council said complaints about begging were “low”, with police and community safety officers tackling incidents of aggressive begging. A petition with more than 500 signatures – or 20 businesses on the valuation roll – would spark a council review, she said.

But the Scottish Government said it would not support any local authority’s plan to introduce an anti-begging by-law.

A spokesman said: “For anyone begging in an aggressive manner, a range of existing criminal laws can be used to prosecute them.

“We consider that a multi-agency approach is best for dealing with begging so that the underlying causes of people begging in the first place can be tackled.”

A veteran soldier who has collected hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity on the Royal Mile has previously hit out at Eastern European beggars.

Decorated Second World War hero Tom Gilzean, 92, who sits for three hours at a time at Castlehill with his collection tin, has seen an upsurge in the number of beggars targeting tourists on the Royal Mile.

Mr Gilzean, of Peffermill claimed they were there for 10 hours a day, and said unlike him, who collected for charity, they were making a fortune.

‘A ban would kill us’

LEANNE, 29, is wrapped in a blue sleeping bag on a cold George Street corner.

She became homeless after losing the tenancy on a flat and started begging to survive. The English-born beggar was too shy to disclose many details of her life, but branded a move to ban the practice “absolutely ridiculous”.

“It’s being dramatic, but it would kill us,” she said, peering out through spectacles from beneath a hooded top.

“What we make doing this is what we have to live on each day. Banning begging would be totally wrong. I am here with a sign on the street asking for money, I’m not up harassing anybody.”

But she acknowledges some beggars can intimidate the public.

“I know that some beggars can be aggressive to people, but most of us just need a helping hand and aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s a kick in the teeth to people who are already struggling.

“I don’t know what many homeless beggars would do if it was banned from Edinburgh. We would probably have to find somewhere else if they banned it here, but it wouldn’t help anyone, just move the problem elsewhere.”

‘Crime is a concern’

SUPPORT worker Mev Brown, who has worked with homeless people in Edinburgh for the last decade, said he would support the move to ban street begging.

He said begging promotes “social dysfunction” and is littered with drug and alcohol addicts.

“By allowing people to fund addiction in this way, the state is essentially helping people to avoid engaging with services that deal with addiction,” he said.

Friday and Saturday nights are the most lucrative for beggars – especially after the pubs close. Before the financial crash in 2008, it was not “unheard of” for a beggar to make £100 a night. The biggest earners are young girls sitting “around nightspots”.

“People come out of pubs and see people begging and they can be sympathetic,” he said. “There’s good money to be made. But, accommodation for the homeless usually has a curfew of 11pm. Beggars stay out of the accommodation to make money, so begging promotes homelessness. It’s counterproductive to allow begging and politicians need to take these things on board.”

And he claimed organised crime was a “genuine concern”.

“Identifiable groups of Eastern Europeans – particularly Romanians – come to this country in numbers to beg on the street corners,” he said.

There can be genuine cases of specific need, but in Edinburgh anyone with a genuine need is directed to council services.”

The lowdown on begging

Q: Is begging on the streets illegal?

A: There is no existing by-law prohibiting begging across Edinburgh. Police can use existing powers such as breach of the peace legislation to reprimand aggressive beggars.

Q: Where do beggars come from?

A: Many are local, but the city’s beggar population is now said to include a number of Romanian people since the country gained EU status in 2007.

Q: What is being done to help?

A: Edinburgh has a string of charities working to alleviate homelessness, poverty and, ultimately, on-street begging. These include Edinburgh Cyrenians and Streetwork.

Q: Why do people beg?

A: Experts claim some beggars can earn up to £100 per day. Some are addicts and beg to feed their habit, but there are genuine cases of need.