Answers to frequently asked questions on begging
"Don't be mean, you heard the man. How can you deny him a few pence for a cup of tea?"
Overwhelming evidence shows that people who beg on the streets of England do so in order to buy hard drugs, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, and super-strength alcoholic beers and ciders. These highly addictive drugs cause an extreme deterioration in people’s health and even death.
This evidence comes from a number of sources. Firstly Thames Reach’s outreach teams including its London Street Rescue service who are out and about on the streets of the capital working with London’s homeless 365 days of the year. They estimate that 80 per cent of people begging do so to support a drug habit.
Secondly, when the Metropolitan Police did some drug testing of people arrested for begging, the figures indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.
Most recently, in a police crackdown in Birmingham on begging in autumn 2013, every single one of the 40 people arrested failed a drug test.
The evidence that the overwhelming majority of people begging on the streets of England spend their begging money on crack cocaine and heroin is indisputable.
"Alright, but what about this chap? He's just a few pounds short of what he needs to book into a hostel tonight."
The hostel accommodation set aside for London’s homeless men and women does not require payment in order to 'book in'. Hostel rent is covered through Housing Benefit, which hostel workers can help the new resident to claim once they have moved into the hostel.
There are around 3,000 bed-spaces of hostel accommodation in London, which can be accessed via the street outreach teams that work in the central London boroughs. London Street Rescue, run by Thames Reach, is one of the main providers of outreach services across London. Our teams not only help people to find accommodation but also get them into drug and alcohol treatment mental health programmes. Outreach teams are active at night, and often during the day, seven days a week. In the last decade, 20,000 people have been helped off the streets.
However, only 40 per cent of people arrested for begging in a Metropolitan Police operation claimed to be homeless.
The operation in Birmingham in autumn 2013 showed that six out of ten people arrested for begging had a home.
Most people begging have accommodation of sorts, either a hostel place or a flat or bed-sit.
Most people who beg have accommodation. Outreach workers can help those who don't to access a hostel bed.
"Maybe, but there's surely no harm in giving a few pence."
Giving to people who beg is not a benign act without consequences. As an organisation that has worked with people on the street for early thirty years, we have seen many lives damaged by hard drugs and alcohol misuse. We have even lost people through overdoses in situations where a significant portion of the money they spent on drugs came from members of the public giving loose change.
By all means, engage with people on the street. Perhaps buy them food or a cup of tea. Best of all, if you are concerned for them because you think they are sleeping rough, contact the Streetlink helpline on 0300 500 0914 or go to www.streetlink.org.uk
Giving to people who beg is not a benign act. It can have fatal consequences.
"Come on, these are just people a bit down on their luck"
Most people begging are not individuals in temporary difficulties, but people who are dependent on a begging income. This is almost certainly to fund a serious drug habit.
There is no need to beg on the streets in 2013. It is an urban myth that if you have no address, you cannot claim benefits. This simply isn’t true. Meanwhile, there are many day centres where homeless people can get food, clothing and support.
Assessment centres in London now offer support to people who are new to the streets in London – 80 per cent of people no longer spend a second night out sleeping rough.
That is not to say that there are not many people on the streets needing help and support. Thames Reach’s outreach teams out every night, in search of the isolated rough sleepers who are missed by other services, helping them into accommodation and to find a way out of homelessness.
Many people asking for your money are caught up in a desperate cycle of begging from the public, ‘scoring’ drugs from a dealer and then taking these drugs.
There are many services seeking to help people sleeping rough. Please work with them, not against them.
"I'm half convinced, but surely if you don't give to people who beg then they will only turn to crime to fund their drug or alcohol addiction."
It is something of a counsel of despair to think that we would give our loose change to people begging to stop them committing crime. Besides, the evidence does not bear out this proposition.
When the Metropolitan Police made numerous arrests for begging, it lead to the dispersal of regular beggars and an overall reduction in the number of people begging on the street. The police analysis that followed 'showed no displacement into crime by beggars moving off the street and the crime figures for the areas remained the same'.
For hostel residents who persist in begging, a reduction in the income supplied through begging can be the catalyst that leads them to spend more time working with staff and thinking about the future. This makes it easier for them to move on to more long-term accommodation or appropriate treatment, and away from the street.
There is no evidence that reducing begging leads to more crime. In fact, it can stimulate people to address their real needs, instead of avoiding facing them.
"Isn't this just about the councils wanting cleaner neighbourhoods?"
Thames Reach's primary concern is that people with serious drug and alcohol problems are gravely damaging their health and even putting their lives at risk using money raised through begging. However, we are also aware that local communities are justifiably concerned at the impact of begging on their neighbourhoods.
Research commissioned by the Home Office found that 54 per cent of the public choose not to use a cash point if there is someone begging next to it. These are reasonable fears that individual members of the public experience. As a responsible organisation working with and in local communities, we seek to understand and address these concerns.
Working with communities to address concerns about begging and its impact is a responsibility that we at Thames Reach take very seriously.
"OK, you may have some valid points, but aren't you demonising all homeless people as feckless beggars and drug addicts?"
The main point we want to make is that the link is primarily between begging and the misuse of hard drugs, not between homelessness and begging or homelessness and drug misuse.
Most people sleeping rough do not beg and most people begging do not sleep rough. Although there are many rough sleepers with serious drug problems (we estimate that 40 per cent of the rough sleepers we help have a drug problem), the majority have not. Our overriding concern is to save lives. Every year there are drug or drink-related death amongst the homeless population on the street. Recent figures from an eminent doctor working with London’s drug using population indicated that the average age that intravenous drug users were dying in central London was shockingly only 31. We want to help people to get off the street and into decent accommodation where they can get the care and support they need. To do this we need the backing of the public.
The link is between begging and drug and alcohol misuse, not homelessness and begging, nor even homelessness and drugs.
"OK, you've convinced me, how can I help people to get off the street and away from the dealers?"
Support local homelessness charities that are working with people in need. You can make a donation or offer up your time as a volunteer.
Finally, we are not asking you to just 'walk on by'. By all means engage street homeless people in conversation, even buy them a cup of tea or food. But please don't give them money. We have seen too many people die from overdoses on the street. Your kindness could kill.
There are plenty of ways of ensuring that your money is spent on finding real solutions to homelessness and drug and alcohol addiction. Help Thames Reach to end street homelessness in London.