Helen Martin: Anyone having to sleep on street beggars belief

OUTSIDE my local Tesco store, two people regularly turn up to beg. They appear to be a couple although they often “work” separately.

I happen to know that recently, after a day with their hands out, they went into a local pub having already quaffed a good deal and offered to buy drinks for everyone. The night didn’t end well and they were flung out after causing a rumpus.

Coincidentally, outside the same Tesco shop, a very friendly, intelligent, smart and cheerful chap sells the Big Issue. However, he can be spotted doing his own shopping at nearby Waitrose in Morningside.

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Edinburgh is indeed, a village. There is no anonymity for weel-kent characters.

Now I am not for one minute suggesting that beggars shouldn’t drink. In all probability it was the drink that turned them into beggars in the first place and that requires treatment, not punishment. And it’s probably very “middle-class” of me to think that there’s something incongruous about sitting on a crate asking people for their loose change, then walking into a pub and announcing free drinks for everyone in the place. But it’s simply not a good move in a local area where word spreads fast. If they can afford to treat a bar full of strangers, they don’t need my 20ps.

Nor am I suggesting that because a chap began selling the Big Issue when he was destitute and needed help to get back on his feet, he must remain destitute for the rest of his life. But there must be a cut-off point in his growing stability and affluence when he should no longer be flogging the mag. When people buy The Big Issue, they believe they are helping someone less fortunate, not paying the recipient of their charity to shop in a high-end supermarket they may not be able to afford themselves!

I know, I know . . . the whole point of The Big Issue is that it’s not supposed to be charity because we buy the magazine. Well, like most folk, I’ve bought dozens of the things, but I haven’t read a single one.

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I used to be a sucker for beggars. I once felt sorry for a Spanish gypsy fortune teller and wound up handing the clever old witch £25 for telling me I had a husband and a son – who were rather self-evidently sitting at the restaurant table with me. Himself never lets me forget it.

Now though, even in the worst recession since the 1930s and at a time when I should be at my most charitable, I am getting so hacked off with folk faking poverty that I’ve stopped responding to begging altogether. And I’ve stopped buying that magazine.

If a Big Issue seller isn’t homeless and hasn’t been for some time, he’s just doing a part-time job like anyone else. I don’t buy extra beans in the supermarket because I feel sorry for the shelf stacker, I don’t order a pizza I don’t want in order to ensure the delivery man has a roof over his head.

Homelessness is one thing. Rough sleeping is another. There is categorically no reason for anyone in 2012 Edinburgh to be sleeping rough because the council has hostels and B&B beds even if it can’t immediately provide everyone with their own “home”.

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Meanwhile, there are more and more desperate-looking, blanket-wrapped folk on Edinburgh pavements pleading for pennies. It could break your heart – until you realise that police forces all over the UK are hunting down the leaders of begging gangs from Romania and elsewhere who exploit the young, the old and the vulnerable and send them out to work the streets in much the same way as a pimp runs a team of prostitutes.

Back in 1992, the Evening News carried out an investigation into some of the city’s regular beggars and revealed The Blanket Crew, a mob of Scottish beggars who dressed the part, spent all day begging, then returned to their smart, three-bedroomed homes and expensive wardrobes. Some claimed unemployment benefits too.

Street begging is not evidence of poverty. It may indicate dysfunctionality, but that won’t be eased by your pound or mine. There are genuinely poor people today. But most are hidden and don’t flaunt their poverty on the street or exploit the generosity of passers-by because they do have homes . . . homes where the bills and debts mount, where they are castigated for the rent and council tax being overdue, where the heating is rationed, food isn’t plentiful and a new pair of school shoes means going without some other essential.

For them I have sympathy. Talk of reducing housing benefit may result in the poor sleeping rough and begging on streets again one day. Meantime I remain cynical about 21st century “blanket crews”. And my change remains in my pocket.