‘Beggars pretending to look homeless by bringing props to streets’ blared a recent One News report, citing as evidence a survey of the homeless population by Hamilton police. Just one problem: the survey doesn’t appear to exist. Branko Marcetic goes in search of the phantom police survey, and looks at what our readiness to accept such claims says about New Zealand’s hardening attitudes towards those who live on our streets.
Update, April 7: TVNZ have pulled their stories in response to this article. More details here.
Back in July 1866, a Canterbury man wrote to The Press to register his complaint about the “roughs” and prostitutes “who infest the footpath” and throw around “revolting language.” “No respectable man can allow his wife’s, sister’s, friend’s and childrens’ [sic] ears to be polluted by the filthy language which is constantly being uttered there, all because of these characters.”
Three months later, the Vagrant Act was passed, criminalising, among other things, “any person wandering abroad or placing himself in any public place, street, highway, court or passage to beg or gather alms.”
But that was 151 years ago. Attitudes have changed. Right? Recent media reports suggest otherwise – culminating in a minor frenzy which erupted around a survey conducted in Hamilton. The only problem, as we’ll see, is that the survey doesn’t appear to have ever actually happened.
Well before the survey came out, the coverage was rising and foaming. The Herald recently published an article warning about an impending “plague” of beggars (or “crowds of cadgers”) swarming the streets of Napier. “Beggars are travelling from Hastings to cash in on the kindness of Napier’s residents to fuel alcohol, drug and gambling habits,” the article warned, a conclusion based largely on the assertions of a few Napier business owners and residents, including the city’s mayor, Bill Dalton, who believed the beggars were “calculated” and not “genuinely struggling to make ends meet.” The city had earlier launched a campaign to discourage begging.
It’s “not a good look or feel to walk down the street and see people begging,” Dalton told the paper.
The reaction Napier is hardly an isolated incident. Last month, RNZ uncritically aired Wellington business leaders’ assertions that beggars were working as a “gang” in the city, with the article referring to them as “so-called beggars”. In January, after Bob Jones called beggars “a disgrace” and “fat Māoris,” 72 percent of nearly 40,000 Herald digipoll respondents said begging should be made illegal. It all seems part and parcel with a general hardening of attitudes toward street people.
Over the last few years, numerous towns and cities around the country have considered or even tried to make the Herald’s readers’ wish a reality and enshrine a begging ban into law, despite warnings from experts that such bans would do little to fix the issue and merely erase whatever progress had been made. The Wellington City Council briefly considered a ban on begging in its CBD, as did Porirua. Palmerston North has actually voted to draft a bylaw doing so.
Meanwhile, three years ago our biggest city adopted a bylaw banning begging in a public place when it caused intimidation or a “nuisance.” The three public submissions calling for the bylaw (which, again, came mostly from businesses, in this case Smith & Caughey and the Onehunga Business Association) wanted a “system of instant fines and confiscations similar to dog control” and complained that begging was “unpleasant” for foreign cruise ship visitors. One of Auckland’s mayoral candidates last year campaigned (partly) on a full ban on begging, complaining that the bylaw as it is did nothing about “passive” banning.
Despite the passage of the bylaw, hostility to those on the streets—aimed even at those who are sleeping rough but aren’t begging—has continued. Some businesses in Auckland have begun installing sprinkler systems to stop homeless people from sleeping on their storefronts. Late last year, the director of billion dollar property company Robt. Jones Holdings complained that the presence of homeless in Auckland made it “a less attractive place for people to shop” and that “major international retail chains won’t come here.” (No examples were given, nor does the claim gel with the fact that many of the world’s major commercial centres like New York or Paris have their own homeless populations).
This has all come after a string of murders of homeless men over the last few years, not long after an Auckland Council report warned that rough sleepers were more vulnerable to violence. One of these murders was of Maqbool Hussain, a 49-year old homeless man killed just two months before the Council adopted its bylaw. He’d been murdered by a man who stomped on his head for half an hour because, he admitted, he “sort of had a hatred” for him due to his lifestyle.
It’s not clear how effective Auckland’s bylaw has been at its stated goal. Moira Lawler, chief executive of Lifewise, says she can’t see how police could even enforce such a law, and views the calls for a ban more as an attempt by governments to be seen as doing something. Still, there’s no doubt such laws contribute to the stigma those on the streets already overwhelmingly face.
The phantom survey
A good example of society’s readiness to uncritically accept any stigmatising tale about street people is a relatively recent survey conducted in Hamilton, news of which quickly spread around the country. In October last year the Hamilton Central Business Association launched a campaign to discourage people from giving money to people begging on the streets, citing a Hamilton police survey conducted over a weekend that found only two of the 15 beggars located in the city were homeless.
“Quite a few of the people had actually brought props in,” the organisation’s general manager, Sandy Turner, told One News. “They’d brought in the duvet covers and the cardboard signs and perhaps the very sickly looking pet.”
The way they were framed, Turner’s shocking claims appeared to have been drawn from the findings of this survey conducted by the police. On the basis of the results, the One News website’s headline blared: “Beggars pretending to look homeless by bringing props to streets.”
The scant information about the survey contained in the report doesn’t tell us much. For instance, how was the survey conducted and what kinds of questions were asked? What does “quite a few” mean? When those surveyed said they weren’t homeless, does that mean they were permanently housed – and if so, how long for – or were they in short-term or transitional housing?
So, curious to find out more about the survey and confirm its findings for myself, I tried to obtain a copy. But unlike most police surveys, the survey and its results do not appear to have been made publicly available, and there is no reference to it on either the Waikato District Police Facebook page or the New Zealand Police website.
More strangely, no one involved in the survey has ever heard of it. After enquiring with the police, a representative told me they couldn’t find any information about such a survey having been carried out by the police. The Hamilton Central Business Association (from which Sandy Turner, the organisation’s general manager who made the initial claims, has since resigned) was itself perplexed when I called asking about the survey, and were unable to find any trace of it.
They referred me to the People’s Project, a community organisation in Hamilton that works to provide housing for the homeless, suggesting they may have liaised with the police on the initiative. But a People’s Project representative was likewise mystified by the question, and in turn referred me to Hamilton City Safe Operations, which works with street people. Paul Blewman, City Safe operations manager, told me that he’s “not aware of the survey that is referred to” and that “if Council were involved I expect that I would have been informed.”
The Hamilton Central Business Association now says the survey “may have been a slight misquote.”
It’s not clear from where exactly the claim came from. The original One News broadcast stated that “a police survey over a weekend found just two of 15 beggars were homeless,” authoritatively describing the results as if the news agency had examined them first hand. But a subsequent version of the story for the TVNZ website appeared to attribute the claims about the survey’s results to Turner, adding a “she said” to the end of a sentence about the survey’s findings.
Attempts to clear the matter up have been less than successful. Chris Chang, the One News reporter whose name appears on the byline for both TVNZ stories, has not responded to multiple emails asking if he’d viewed the survey or some alternative source of data for himself before reporting the supposed findings. Requests to the Hamilton Central Business Association to speak with Sandy Turner herself have been rebuffed. An OIA request regarding the survey didn’t turn up anything, with a police spokesperson saying last week that “the information can’t be found”.
One possible source for the claims is a single sentence on the People’s Project website, which states: “we identified 15 beggars in the central city, none of whom were homeless.” The website has no link to the study, and makes no mention of people pretending to be homeless. Once more, the definition of “homeless” in this context isn’t provided. My requests to get access to this particular survey or its related data have also gone unanswered.
Despite the many questions around the survey, the sensational story was quickly picked up by the UK’s Daily Mail, whose lede ran: “A weekend police survey in Hamilton discovered only two beggars were actually homeless and the others were bringing props and even dogs to help them appear poor.”
The article asserted that “13 had brought duvet covers, cardboard signs and even sickly looking pets to give the impression they were living on the streets,” a statement that appeared at odds with Turner’s claim that “quite a few” had engaged in this behaviour, not all of them. For commenters on the site, it confirmed their suspicions. One warned that “most of them are from syndicates,” while another offered that “all beggars [sic] should just be rounded up in a van and removed, like they do to stray dogs.”
The Daily Mail article was then in turn picked up by media here, such as the Herald, which re-printed it. The Herald’s version was then shared on Twitter, where users cited it as evidence that “some beggars are con artists” and that “even the beggars are fake.” Meanwhile, in a post titled “Told ya, begging is a lifestyle choice,” WhaleOil blogger Cameron Slater referenced the survey to make the case that “there is absolutely no need to be begging on the streets in NZ” because “we have a gold-plated welfare system,” and that “most beggars are simply faking it.”
To be clear, as Hamilton’s phantom survey does inadvertently touch on, begging and homelessness are not the same thing – people who sleep rough may not necessarily beg on the streets, and those begging on the streets may not necessarily lack a home to sleep in.
“Homelessness is in general a spectrum,” says Dr. Shiloh Groot, the Tangata Whenua co-chair of the NZ Coalition to End Homelessness, explaining that even if someone isn’t technically homeless, they could still be living in a variety of precarious situations, such as a refuge, boarding house or temporary abode.
Even so, the two do overlap, both in reality and in the public imagination. Maybe more importantly, they’re both a product of the poverty that has been a persistent feature of New Zealand society since the economic reforms of the 1980s – and which has not been helped by the global financial crisis. While poverty has fallen slightly from its post-recession peak, it remains stubbornly high.
Because of this, an ongoing spate of news reports that demonise street people as aggressive, even violent hucksters tends to vilify the homeless as a group, too. And demonisation is the only appropriate word for warnings of a “plague” of “aggressive” beggars “harassing” shoppers, giving spare change to whom is “directly supporting drug use, aggression, and crime” and who are “holding city residents, businesses and visitors to ransom.” Or claims that beggars work as part of a “syndicate” and use “scare tactics” to extort money from terrified shoppers, and that they “sit around waiting for someone they can prey on … old people, kids and women.”
It’s no surprise that, like the phantom Hamilton police survey, these stories are mostly based largely on unverified assertions or dramatic, outlying, anecdotal cases that present a simple black and white picture of the problems of both homelessness and begging.
Moira Lawler says that the negativity of much of the discourse around the issue is “levelled at people on the margins of society more generally.”
“It’s not dissimilar to looking at a family needing a food parcel from the Salvation Army and saying, ‘You shouldn’t smoke or eat KFC,’” she says.
“We think if we can minimise and personalise the issue, we can distance ourselves from the issue.”
Dr. Groot agrees, saying that such strategies are similar to the narrative about the poor in general, whose existence challenges New Zealand’s widespread belief that the system will pick them up should they fall on hard times.
“It’s confronting,” she says. “It’s a reminder that not everything’s clean and green.”
It’s no surprise that the data and individuals themselves present a far more complex picture of both homelessness and begging. The stories of those on the streets tend to be ones of childhood abuse and unforeseen disasters, such as debilitating injuries – stories that are backed up by data.
A 2016 Wellington City Council report titled Begging Wellington had as its “main finding” that “begging is a symptom of complex, long-lasting social issues,” with those begging “often hobbled by current or prior addictions, a criminal conviction and a fragile or non-existent informal support network.” Meanwhile, a Parliamentary research paper on homelessness found that the homeless tend to have addiction problems and be “excessively burdened” with mental health issues, which tend to be cause and effect (or both) of homelessness.
The experiences of others also show that it’s not unusual for homeless who are begging to transition to housing, and then end up on the streets again.
Meanwhile the conflation of the worst stereotypes about begging with homelessness in general distorts our view about what homelessness really is. More than half of “severely housing deprived people” are younger than 25. Increasingly, they’re families living in cars, priced out of either renting or buying homes in our cities.
Despite Bob Jones’ complaints about “fat Māoris,” the proportion of homeless people who are Pākehā ranges from 36 percent to 53 percent, depending on the setting. And while many view both begging and homelessness with a jaded eye in light of blind faith in our supposedly benevolent welfare state, many of those who are sleeping rough have trouble getting access to government services because of the hoops they have to jump through, including providing the right documentation – hard to do when you don’t even own a ring binder.
Much of the anger aimed at this growing underclass seems to be based on having to see them. “It’s not a good look,” one commercial property agent told the Herald about the homeless, complaining that it was “not conducive to the premium corporate image” of a client. “People feel intimidated if they see people who look vulnerable on the streets,” Sandy Turner told One News.
Seeing street people is indeed upsetting, a reminder that New Zealand is neither as egalitarian as we think, nor that our government is doing as good a job of taking care of the poor as we tell ourselves. But if we really want to get rid of street people, we’ll have to take aim at the endemic poverty that has been a feature of New Zealand for three decades now—not simply sweep people away so we’re not reminded it exists.
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