For other cities, however, begging is a much more recent, if growing, phenomenon – and often a controversial one. While the reasons for this global rise are complex, the responses to the issue vary both in their severity and their success rates.
In the US, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty views begging as “a very basic form of speech, asking your fellow human beings for help when you’re in a desperate situation … It deserves, as much as any other speech, to be protected.” Yet its study of 187 US cities last year found that 76% prohibit begging in specific public places, while 24% impose city-wide bans.
Some cities focus on dissuading people from giving money to those who beg. The prevailing wisdom: if you want to help, you’re better doing it by giving money to a relevant charity.
In England earlier this year, for example, Southampton city council ran a “begging you for lasting change” poster campaign, which urged people to give to charities not individuals. But in September, the Advertising Standards Authority had to reprimand Nottingham city council for a summer poster campaign that suggested people who beg are “disingenuous and undeserving”.
Rosie Brighouse, legal officer at the human rights charity Liberty, says most of the evidence on the circumstances of people who beg is anecdotal, and that the issue requires more thorough research.
“Some people seem to think they should have a right not to be approached by people on the street,” she says. “But others who think a public space is a public space believe people should be able to approach each other for help. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that campaigns against begging are about social cleansing and cleaning up streets, just so they look better.”
In some cities, the “battle against begging” is being taken to forcible extremes. The Nigerian senate, for example, is considering a bill that would ban the “menace of street begging” in cities all over the country – following the Lagos state government’s move to round up 413 beggars from the city’s streets in July, 31 of whom were subsequently deported to neighbouring Niger.
Elsewhere, more moderate measures are being attempted. Belfast is the latest city to consider introducing begging-free zones, while New Zealand’s capital Wellington has opted to “tolerate begging as part of the cityscape”, and is exploring options that include education for beggars on street etiquette, giving vouchers instead of money, and requiring beggars to have permits.
In the US, pressure on law-makers to rid city centres of begging, or “panhandling”, often comes from their “business improvement districts”. So New York mayor Bill de Blasio signed a bill to restrict “pushy” panhandling in Times Square to designated “activity zones”. Oklahoma City has extended its exclusion zones so that panhandling is now prohibited within 50 feet of cafes, restaurants, school bus stops, elementary schools, ATMs and public restrooms.
In the cities of West Palm Beach and San Rafael, city-centre metres accept credit cards and cash donations as an alternative to giving to people who beg on their streets, while in the UK, councillors in Newcastle upon Tyne recently suggested a giant city-centre collection box in the shape of a Greggs pasty (a local fast-food) to encourage people to donate money to local charities.
Across the UK, the anti-begging weapon of choice has become the public space protection order (PSPO), introduced under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. Cities across the country have adopted it in various ways, from targeting aggressive begging and remaining in a public toilet without reasonable excuse, to “nuisance street entertainment” and even pigeon feeding.
In terms of begging, a PSPO will often mean that anyone making a verbal, non-verbal or written request – including the placing of hats or containers – for money will be asked to leave the area and not return for 24 hours by a police or community support officer. Failure to comply can result in a fine of up to £1,000.
Human rights campaigners argue that cities, by using PSPOs, are criminalising people rather than addressing the reasons that force them to beg.
Thames Reach, a London charity that works with homeless and vulnerable people in the capital, estimates 80% of people begging do so to support a drug habit. When the Metropolitan police drug-tested people arrested for begging, more than 70% tested positive for class-A drugs.
According to Liberty, cities and their police forces should use existing powers under the 194-year-old Vagrancy Act, which allow courts to direct people who beg to addiction or homelessness support services. “A PSPO can only result in a fine,” says Brighouse. “It’s a very blunt and highly inappropriate instrument for tackling begging.”
Some cities, including Liverpool and Wellington, have abandoned plans to ban begging directly, concluding that there is little evidence of it working. In the Indian city of Kolkata, meanwhile, the state food and supplies department is working on a plan to provide free rice and wheat to the city’s 4,000 street dwellers.
Other progressive cities are seeking more sustainable solutions, attempting to address the underlying causes and injustices that force many to beg. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, for example, paid work is offered to people who beg. Under Mayor Richard Berry’s There’s a Better Way programme, a van is dispatched around the city daily to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working, paying them $9 an hour to pick litter or weed flowerbeds. At the end of their shift, people are offered overnight shelter.
Dhaka’s city’s leaders are trying to learn lessons from a rehabilitation programme in the north-west of Bangladesh, in Nilphamari district, where nearly 1,000 beggars are being trained to farm goats, run tailoring shops and other small businesses.
In Dhaka, they’ve tried quick fixes before and know they don’t work. The beggars who were cleared from the city’s streets before the cricket World Cup in 2011 came back as soon as the competition ended. City bans, it seems, are no more a long-term solution to a panhandler’s plight than a begging bowl of small change.
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