CEO’s Blog – 10/10/2017

The Debate About Begging


Over the past few months there has a been a lot in the local news about the rights and wrongs of homeless people begging on our streets, or more particularly about whether you and I should give to beggars. I listened with interest as a BBC Radio Kent reporter told about her experiences when she pretended to be homeless on the streets of Tunbridge Wells; reactions were varied to say the least. Then a story came out that the local Tunbridge Wells churches had asked that people give to charities not to those begging on the streets. This all encouraged some debate about the subject but it came to the fore when Tunbridge Wells Borough Council proposed a “Public Space Protection Order” to essentially outlaw people begging in their borough. In the wake of this I was asked to give my views on BBC South East, ITV Meridian and BBC Radio Kent – I have never been so famous or is that INfamous? (Autobiography, film and merchandising deal to follow no doubt!) So let me summarise what seemed to be the main arguments against giving beggars any money – be they in Tunbridge Wells or anywhere else.

– It does no long-term good; It helps people stay on the streets instead of helping people off the streets
– They will only spend your money on drink and drugs
– They may not really be homeless at all
– Beggars can harass and intimidate passers-by

Now, you may be expecting me to give my arguments against the above but in truth, I agree with it all! However, what seems to have been forgotten is that every single person sleeping rough or begging is different. These arguments hold true for a few but not for most and to use a Public Space Protection Order (PSPO) to try and sweep the issue away seems overly draconian, and asserting that you will fine beggars £80, or £1,000 if they don’t pay-up is just daft. Let me address each argument in turn:

– It does no long-term good; It helps people stay on the streets instead of helping people off the streets
True. But that doesn’t mean we can allow them to starve to death or suffer in the mean-time. Metaphorically speaking, we want to cure the ill, but if all we have is a sticking plaster to put over the wound, then that’s better than nothing, isn’t it?

– They will spend the money on drink and/or drugs
Yes, SOME may do, but please don’t paint all people with the same brush. Also to an extent, maybe a drink to try and get through the awfulness of their situation is understandable. As an alternative, why not offer food or a drink – but please ask them first what they would like – not everyone likes prawn and mayonnaise!

– They may not really be homeless at all
True again, but 99.9% are, or are in real need. I doubt that any people begging in Tunbridge Wells end their day by getting in their BMW and going home to a 4 bed detached! Why not just speak to these people and judge for yourself.

– Beggars can harass and intimidate passers-by
A few maybe but it depends what “harassment” means to you. I don’t consider someone asking me for change is harassment. If they chase me down the street afterwards then that’s different. It’s true that a minority (probably those who are drunk) have been intimidating or rude to people, but I have come across many more like that who are NOT homeless or on the streets at all.

The proposal of a PSPO highlights the crux of the problem as the council’s assertion is that people must engage with either the Housing and/or Benefits services – that way they will have either housing and/or money and therefore no need to beg. Unfortunately most of the rough sleepers out there are in no way capable of doing either of these things. The extent of their capabilities may be to simply survive day hour by hour. Assuming that they all have the capacity to e.g. make appointments with job advisors or use computers to do job searches and can bid on the Kent Homechoice system is simply a fantasy. In my view, just because you offer only A and B and neither of those can work for these people, to just legislate against them, effectively writing them off is uncaring, uncompassionate and in many respects dehumanising.

As a society we should be in the business of helping people who are on the streets and helping them off the streets; ignoring or legislating against the problem will only hide it, not solve it.