Harrogate is using the rising popularity in contactless payments as a new way of helping the town’s homeless while reducing street begging. Graham Chalmers reports.
In common with many other places across the country, there has been growing public alarm about the increasingly-visible evidence of homelessness across Yorkshire in recent years. Some 70 people died on the streets of Yorkshire and Humber last year – more than double the amount experiences in 2013 – while hundreds of people were recorded as sleeping rough during the same period.
The problem has been far from limited to major cities and now the genteel spa town of Harrogate is attempting a new solution to the issue following a noticeable rise in begging.
Leaders from the town’s council, North Yorkshire Police and local charities have launched a new initiative called Harrogate Street Aid as a way they hope can help reduce both homelessness problems and street begging.
Residents and visitors wanting to hope those who find themselves in a desperate plight are being encouraged to make contactless payments on credit and debit cards to charity at a special pay terminal rather than giving loose change to those on the streets.
The first pay terminal has been unveiled on Oxford Street, which has been at the heart of the issue, on the window of Marks & Spencer’s food hall. It allows people to donate directly to a central fund providing long-term help for the homeless - with suggested donations of £3 set.
Liz Hancock, chief executive of Harrogate Homeless Project, says it is hoped the scheme could help individuals on the street change the direction of their lives in a way that handing over loose change doesn’t achieve.
“We’re sympathetic to members of the public and we understand why they give to beggars,” she says. “It’s really disturbing to pass someone sitting on the street in cold weather but giving money like that is not the best way to help people.
“It ends up supporting street life rather than turning their lives around for the long term. Harrogate Street Aid is an alternative way to help people on the streets.”
Coun Mike Chambers, Harrogate Borough Council’s cabinet member for safer communities and housing, adds: “We recognise that begging and street sleeping has been more visible in Harrogate in recent months and this project is a positive way of tackling this challenging and delicate issue.
“Harrogate Street Aid is about making a real change to people who find themselves on the street.
“Money kindly donated by the public will help vulnerable people to get the support they need to turn a corner.”
In launching the initiative, Harrogate has looked to the experience of councils in York, Nottingham, London, Oxford and Cambridge where there are similar issues with street sleepers and begging.
But Harrogate has a long way to go yet to catch up with Cambridge Street Aid - a key inspiration for this project.
Since being launched there in 2016, the Cambridge scheme has raised more than £67,000 and given out 222 grants via six donation points around the city.
Helen Richardson, the council’s community safety officer, says she examined different approaches in operation across the country - before a police officer told her about what was happening in Cambridge.
“When I started in my role for the council, one of the first areas I was asked to look at was the issue of street sleeping and begging, particularly in relation to the increasing ASB (anti-social behaviour) associated with it.
“I looked at Leeds, Oxford, London, Manchester and it was PC Graham Wilson who had been to the folk festival in Cambridge who highlighted Cambridge to me.
“Cambridge has been using this model for two years and it is very successful.
“The city has a much larger street sleeper and begging issue and not the partnerships in place that Harrogate has. We visited them and chatted at length - they were very happy for us to take on board Street Aid which we were thrilled to do as we see it as a very strong model.”
The authorities here have always insisted that the figures for genuine homelessness in Harrogate have not increased significantly.
This is partly thanks to the help schemes Harrogate Borough Council and local charity Harrogate Homeless Project already run. Harrogate Street Aid is not meant to replace or add to current provision for crisis support at HHP’s homeless hostel on Bower Street or its day service called Springboard at Oxford Street which provides food, shower facilities and advice.
Administered by Two Ridings Community Foundation, which already works with good causes across the district, the idea is that organisations supporting the homeless will be invited to apply for grants of up to £500 to assist individuals to get off the streets, and, keep them off.
It is hoped that M&S will not be the last business in Harrogate town centre to offer to host a pay point.
Mark Robson, store manager of M&S Harrogate is urging shoppers to support Harrogate Street Aid.
“This a fantastic initiative in our town and I’m really excited that M&S Harrogate is the first location for the digital contactless donation terminal,” he says. “We urge shoppers to come over to the terminal and donate to this really worthwhile cause if they can.”
Evidence suggests there is a great deal of public sympathy for people who are perceived to be sleeping rough and that the action of the authorities is frequently misunderstood.
The whole issue remains a sensitive one in Harrogate with the idea of not giving cash to street beggars receiving criticism from some of the public when it was raised earlier in the year - despite traders claiming the situation was fuelling anti-social behaviour in the town centre.
But the organisations most involved at a ground level all say the same thing - giving cash doesn’t actually help beggars change their lives.
Hancock says: “Giving cash to people begging can, unfortunately, just help people maintain street lifestyles. By giving to Street Aid, more meaningful support can be given, that will create lasting change for individuals.”
Coun Chambers adds: “Despite what people assume, giving a few pounds to a beggar is not going to make any real change for that person, it may actually keep them on the street.”
Julia Mulligan, North Yorkshire Police, Fire and Crime Commissioner says she is delighted to be able to support this new scheme via the police’s community fund.
“I very much hope that this is the start of things to come and more shops and outlets will take up the cause.”
Subject to available funds, Harrogate Street Aid expects to commence grant making in December. It just needs the public to reach in their pockets for their credit cards or debit cards... not their loose change.
Donations ‘can make a difference’
Donations to the new initiative can make a “real change” to people’s lives, says Helen Richardson.
“We’ve worked closely with partner agencies and believe we have a robust initiative,” says the council community safety officer.
“Street sleepers and beggars are often vulnerable so it needs a multi-agency approach to successfully support them. We are looking at a way to make real change and get them off the street for good.
“By donating directly to a central fund that can be given out in grants (up to £500 in Harrogate) will make real change to people’s lives.
“We have mapped areas of funding and highlighted where there is a gap in Harrogate - training courses and addiction therapies for example.”