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A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland.  (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland. (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

AucklandMay 23, 2017

Begging for change: Why an inner-city ban on begging is all kinds of wrong

A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland.  (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)
A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland. (Photo: Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

The Auckland Council is going to decide soon whether begging should be banned. There’s a better approach, says Auckland City Missioner Chris Farrelly.

A colleague of mine found a man waking up in Aotea Square a few winters ago. It was early in the morning and fog – it might as well have been fog – furled out of his mouth as he breathed. The man – we’ll call him Liam – was middle-aged and articulate; quietly spoken. My colleague introduced himself and asked if Liam was open to a conversation. The two of them spoke for some time and it turned out Liam had once earned his living as a psychology lecturer at a respected tertiary institution.

The funny thing about mental illness is that often the hardest mind to diagnose is your own. Liam failed to see the signs of his encroaching depression until it had robbed him of his energy, his passion for his work, and then his job itself. He was forced to let go of his apartment and, too proud to ask family for help, he took to the streets.

Like many rough sleepers, Liam developed an addiction as a side-effect of dealing with the pain and discomfort, both mental and physical, of living life in public spaces. Alcohol kept him warm at night. It kept his depression at bay, even while feeding it. Sometimes, Liam would lay out a paper cup to collect change to feed his new habit – and who could blame him?

A homeless person sleeping on a park bench at Victoria Park, Auckland. (Photo by Dean Purcell/Getty Images)

Auckland Council is currently reviewing its Public Safety and Nuisance Bylaws, in an effort to decide whether begging should be outlawed. Is it a sensible way to deal with those whose very existence seems to offend certain members of our community?

Not all beggars are homeless, but this doesn’t mean that those who do beg don’t have valid reasons for doing so. The Mission’s Outreach Team, who walk the streets of the central city seeking out rough sleepers, have identified a growing number of people (housed or otherwise) who beg as a means to top-up their existing benefit. The sickness benefit alone has increased in line with inflation for several decades, but average rent in Auckland has risen 120 percent since 1995.

Begging and rough sleeping are not the same issue, yet they are linked by the tangled threads of social disparity – and by the fact that both are visible signs of poverty which can be upsetting to see on your walk to work.

But outlawing begging is a lazy solution – if you can even call it a solution at all. No one can argue that sitting on a cold footpath, asking passers-by for spare change, is an attractive choice for anyone with alternative options. The question we need to ask ourselves is, “How do we provide those in our community who are struggling with viable alternatives?”

Furthermore, where is the evidence that outlawing begging is a wise fiscal decision? Where are the funds for enforcing the new bylaw going to come from, for one? They certainly won’t be generated by fines extracted from people caught sitting next to paper cups on Queen St, since someone who has to beg in order to pay for food – or, yes, other substances – is unlikely to have the money to pay fines.

One of the men the Mission is working with has suffered from alcoholism since he was 10 years old. He is also rough sleeping as we work to find him a home to live in, but because he has several fines arising from breaches of the inner-city liquor ban, he can’t even afford a Housing New Zealand unit.

Fines are not just causing this man additional financial hardship, they are preventing him from moving into permanent housing. In all likelihood, they will never been paid if he is not housed and offered the wrap-around support he needs to get clean. More fines will only make his situation worse. Who, exactly, benefits from this misery?

Auckland City Missioner Chris FarrellyThere is no place for harassment or aggressive begging; this is already banned under current bylaws and is not what I’m advocating here. However, if we are truly interested in ridding our inner city of the “nuisance” of passive begging, then addressing the reasons people turn to begging in the first place will be far more effective.

We need more affordable housing, more emergency accommodation in the central city and better resourcing for mental health and other support services. The recently launched Housing First initiative, in which Auckland City Mission is involved, aims to do just that. We think it’s a good start.

I dislike seeing people begging and sleeping rough just as much as the next person – it tells me that we, as a city, are failing those who need our compassion in its most active form. People like Liam and the dozens of other people whose bodies lie in the streets of the central city remind me that our workload is only intensifying. Removing the visible signs of poverty does not erase its existence – it just makes it possible for some of us to deny its brutality. That is the worst possible outcome.

I know first-hand how compassionate Aucklanders can be. I see hundreds of donors and volunteers every day, who are devastated by the hardship they see around them and who are desperate to help in any way they can. I believe we can treat this issue – these people – with the delicacy, respect and intelligent consideration they deserve. Turning them into criminals is not the answer.

The Spinoff Auckland is sponsored by Heart of the City, the business association dedicated to the growth of downtown Auckland as a vibrant centre for entertainment, retail, hospitality and business.

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