When I worked at the Home Office on drugs policy I had delegated national responsibility for policy with regard to begging. I had good opportunity to discuss begging, review evidence, talk to people begging, and those who manage it on the street. People beg for all sorts of reasons, some perfectly valid, some less so.
Begging, per se, is not really Hope’s responsibility, as people who beg are not necessarily in need, nor have significant mental health or addiction issues, and are very much not necessarily homeless. Some are however.
Where this becomes an issue is when people confuse the two types of people begging. Some think that these people are always sleeping rough, and that’s why they beg.
This confuses people’s ideas about the scale of the homelessness problem in Northampton. People think there are more people than there are. There may be people in need, but they aren’t all homeless. The result is that we get a lot of stick on social media about any statement we make about the numbers of people on the street. We get viciously, often personally insulted when we say: ‘there are only this number or that number‘. Very often people will make comments like ‘I saw x number just on my way to work, Hope are lying‘ or ‘I spoke to all of the homeless people and over half said they are ‘banned from Hope’ ‘.
We don’t tell untruths. No-one is currently banned from Hope, yet someone says that lots of people are banned every week on social media. No doubt some people out begging do say they are. Its not true though. They say this because they may think it encourages people to give; it plays into a narrative amongst some observers that we don’t care. It is used as a stick by others to attack us, and its a lie.
Why would an organisation that deals with homelessness go public in saying that the numbers on the street have reduced? What does this gain us? Does it encourage people to donate? Hardly, as some people will think, ‘ok then, why should I give to them?’
We are proud to get people off the street. We would love to close our homelessness services if there was no one in need. We work everyday to help people leave it and leaving it is as much the goal we seek as helping them whilst they are there. We do both and our staff are passionate in their care.
Whether you give to people who beg is your choice. I counted seven separate people begging on Wellingborough Road alone, on Monday night after the cold weather shelter, giving 24 hr, fully fed care, was opened. They looked superficially like the stereotype of a homeless person. None of them was a rough sleeper currently known to Hope. They may have some sort of needs – and I am not encouraging anyone to treat them unfairly or unkindly because they beg: that is not the intention. Begging can be a means of surviving in a hard world, and if they use the money on drink and drugs, it can be argued that this is their affair.
Your choice – it’s Christmas after all. But don’t tell us we are lying, and uncaring, when we say – and can prove – that they aren’t rough sleepers.