Begging the question: How do we solve problem of those who ask for change?

A beggars on Boar Lane in Leeds city centre. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.A beggars on Boar Lane in Leeds city centre. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
A beggars on Boar Lane in Leeds city centre. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe.
Beggars are still a familiar sight on our streets, but who are they and do they really want to be helped? Grant Woodward reports.

“IT’S my birthday tomorrow,” says Peter in a voice so quiet it is in danger of being drowned out by a passing bin truck. “I’ll be 36.” He takes a look around him and shrugs. “I’ll probably spend it here.”

Here is an unremarkable corner of pavement sandwiched between Subway and William Hill. As a steady stream of shoppers and office workers file past under umbrellas, he doesn’t seem to notice the July rain bouncing steadily off his hat.

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Across the road is the gleaming new frontage of the £350m Trinity shopping centre. Yet Peter’s presence – and the styrofoam cup gripped pleadingly in his grimy hand – is a jarring reminder that some things haven’t changed.

There are dozens of beggars just like him, all plying their trade on the streets of Leeds city centre.

A recent one-day crackdown to discourage the practice found 29 of them, gravitated mostly towards popular shopping areas and cashpoints. That figure may be down on past numbers, but there are still plenty of complaints.

A year ago, the city council brought in powers to deal with persistent beggars like Peter, allowing it to fast-track repeat offenders through the courts with the aid of injunctions.

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However, after a legal challenge brought by two people served with injunctions a judge discharged the ban.

It has left council, police and charities searching for an alternative solution – and struggling to reach a consensus on how to eradicate a centuries-old problem.

“As a charity we supported the injunction policy because it was the last tool in the bag,” explains Chris Fields, chief executive of Leeds homeless charity St George’s Crypt, a 15-minute walk away from Peter’s spot on the pavement.
 “Everything had been done to try to help people get off the streets, the final option we had was to plonk an injunction on them.

“We had it nailed at one point, but when that was pulled by the courts the beggars started to return and it sent us back to square one.”

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The resultant change of tack has shifted the focus on to those who do the giving; the public’s ready supply of loose change being the reason some individuals are willing to spend their days begging on a pavement.

“Our emphasis now is on making the public aware of what their money is being spent on,” says Fields.

“Basically, most of the beggars you see on the street are charlatans and opportunists.

“You may feel guilty walking past them, but the majority of them have a roof over the head and an income to pay for it. Put it this way, if someone knocked on your grandmother’s door demanding £2 you would be angry, so why should we allow people to do it on the street?”

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Peter, who says on a good day he may collect £20 in his cup, accepts that there are those who beg simply as a source of additional income.

However he insists he spends the money on food and places to stay, as he says he is forced to sofa surf his way round friends’ houses because shelters will not allow him to take his dog with him.

“I’ve had an injunction against me and the police keep moving me on,” he says. And yet he keeps coming back.

In a bid to ensure opportunists don’t profit from begging, philanthropic passers-are being urged to use a voucher scheme that swaps money for hands-on help and the offer of long-term support.

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“They cost £5 a book and there are five vouchers in each,” Chris Fields explains. “They have no face value but they entitle a beggar to a three-course meal, shower, change of clothes and signposting to whatever help that person needs. We have sold thousands of them.”

This scheme, along with Think Before You Give, which allows the public to text donations to help those in genuine need, is supported by Councillor Mark Dobson, whose position as the council’s executive member for community safety gives him the task of getting to grips with the city’s begging problem.

“Last year when we started the zero tolerance approach we had 80 who we could class as persistent beggars on the streets of Leeds,” he says. “They were people who were generally homeless people with drug addictions, people with mental health issues, you quickly found it’s a complex picture.

“What we have tried to do in the last year, through working with people like St George’s Crypt, is saying we want to tackle the issue of begging – not just push it into the margins.”

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He is heartened by the recent head-count which indicates numbers have dropped, and the fact people are taking up offers of support, but admits it is a long road.

“This isn’t about making the city centre look better,” he stresses. “We want to tackle this issue in a mature and compassionate way.

“There is an issue, it’s fair to say, with people who are choosing begging as a lifestyle and a way to make money.

“The message to the public is if you want to do something good and support people in genuine need you can buy vouchers or send money using the Think Before You Give text number which will then go to these people.”

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However, Helen Beachell from Leeds homeless charity Simon On The Streets has reservations about such a strategy. As much as the police and council would like to find one, she insists there is no quick-fix solution to the presence of beggars on our streets.

“We need to credit the general public with a little more awareness of the issue than this campaign allows,” she says. “Begging rarely arises out of the need for food and vouchers will not solve this problem, it is far more complex. At times, some of those who beg may well be hungry. However, the majority of people who beg do so to fund an addiction.

“That addiction isn’t a choice as such, it’s often the result of the need to find a coping mechanism to deal with a significant trauma that has gone without the necessary support.

“Most people realise, or at least suspect, where their money is going and it is their choice whether or not to give. We need to move away from a culture of thinking that we know what is best for someone.”

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Beachell argues that simply meting out punishment for beggars could actually make the problem worse, resulting in a rise in acquisitional crime such as shoplifting and car thefts.

“If we eradicate begging without addressing an individual’s motivators and drivers for begging in the first place, then we will simply push the problem elsewhere,” she insists.

“What Leeds, and every other city needs, is a truly multi-agency approach that recognises that what can, and will, impact on this is a long-term piece of work with a group of people with very complex support needs.”

Meanwhile, Peter – and his outstretched cup – wait in the drizzle for the next drop of loose change.