I recently saw a man passing through train carriages asking for
spare change. A passenger near me reached for his wallet. But
behind the beggar was a ticket inspector who insisted that no one
should give any money.
Some people may see such an attitude as unnecessarily controlling,
believing it is the individual’s right to choose whether or not to
part with their money. However, the approach favoured by the ticket
inspector may become the norm if local authorities, such as
Westminster and Camden in London, have their way.
These two councils have combined forces on a mission to stop people
in London giving money to beggars, saying that it is often used to
buy drugs. Using posters, their campaign, “Killing with Kindness”,
aims to inform the public that this could indeed be the result when
they give money directly to street beggars.
The campaign is intended to “tell people the truth about people who
are begging on the streets”, says Kit Malthouse, deputy leader of
Westminster Council. He says 85 per cent of people who beg do so to
buy drugs and that, rather than being homeless and hungry, more
than half are professional beggars.
“Most beggars are not rough sleepers. By giving to beggars people
are not helping the homeless but are in effect feeding a drug
habit. That quid you casually give may buy the fix that kills,” he
“They are more reluctant to come into the day centres and hostels
we provide if they can sustain their life on the street by
However, research does not fully support this stance. A report from
the Rough Sleepers Unit in 2001 found that the most common reason
for begging was to buy food (77 per cent), although 53 per cent
said they also begged to pay for drugs.1
Lisa Nandy, policy officer for homelessness charity Centrepoint,
questions whether it is right to focus on substance abuse. She
says: “Some rough sleepers beg because they don’t have any money so
it’s a way to buy a cup of tea. In other cases it can be linked to
some form of escapism such as alcohol or drug abuse. But money
isn’t what leads to taking drugs in the first place.”
The councils’ campaign is based on an assumption that street
beggars tend not to be rough sleepers. Camden Council says that, at
the last count, there were 96 beggars but just five people sleeping
rough. Can this be right?
Not according to Nandy. She says: “There may be people sitting on
streets asking for money who are not homeless but I’d be surprised.
Begging is not the kind of thing people choose to do if there is
If Westminster and Camden have their way, the public will stop
giving any money to beggars – all well and good if more people are
helped by services. But there are no guarantees, and those left on
the streets without money will face further hardship.
Joe Hermer, assistant professor of sociology and criminology at
Toronto University, Canada, did a doctorate at Oxford University on
street begging. He says the consequences could be severe if people
are unable to make any money from begging.
“There is a limited number of activities available to people living
on the street to earn money to survive and some of them are much
more dangerous and invisible than asking the public for pocket
change,” he says, citing the sex trade as one example.
As it is, homeless people are already stigmatised and any campaign
that strengthens the link between begging and drug abuse will do
little to change people’s perceptions. Hermer is concerned that it
will not only be the public who become more hostile.
“I worry that these campaigns shape the opinions of police and
social care organisations which see people who beg not as a
vulnerable population that needs assistance but as criminal drug
addicts,” he says.
The success of any initiative to tackle street begging depends
greatly on the services available. According to Camden Council,
there is no need for anyone to beg to support themselves as its
“excellent services” can help those on the streets find
accommodation, support and treatment. A confident assertion but, as
true as it may be, even with the best services there are always
some people who are impossible to reach.
The intention may be to encourage rough sleepers into the services
that can help them off the streets, while getting rid of the
visible public nuisance that begging can be. More realistically,
rather than solving the problem, the strategy may simply push it
into other areas.
Looking for Change:
the Role and Impact of Begging on the Lives of People who Beg,
Rough Sleepers Unit, 2001
‘It beats stealing’
Run by the charity Oasis Trust, the Oasis Health Centre in
London provides health care for homeless people. Here, clients and
project workers express their views.
“I’d rather give to a beggar who asks than a mugger who doesn’t.
If someone needs money they will get it. However, a lot of people
in the city and other so-called respectable businessmen are on
drugs, legal or otherwise, and we don’t stop giving money to them
through consumerism” – Client
“I do believe there is a need for people to beg because
sometimes it is the only way to make money and I don’t want to go
out and steal” – Client
I think it’s important for people to make up their own minds
about whether they give to someone they see on the street. There
shouldn’t be a law against compassion” – Daniel Wheeler, centre
“If they want drugs they will get the money one way or another.
I see begging as preferable to stealing. I don’t think the
government should be telling people who they can and can’t give
money to” – Katherine Horrobin, centre project worker
‘Information is inadequate’
Carole Wright was homeless for 18 months, living in a women’s
hostel until earlier this year. Although she did not need to beg
herself, she knew three men who did “because they didn’t want to go
and seek money from the dole office”.
They needed money primarily for food or accommodation, but
sometimes they would use it for drugs and alcohol, she says. The
men tended to beg in tube stations and could make up to £50 a
Wright, now a volunteer for homelessness charity Groundswell,
thinks Westminster and Camden’s campaign to discourage begging
would be fine if there was better information available for people
on the streets so that they could find out where to seek help.
She says: “Services are difficult to find. You have to know
people who have been in the same situation. The information out
there is pretty inadequate, even in hostels.”
However, she points out that there are no guarantees that people
would be forced to seek help if they were unable to make any money
She is also concerned that homeless people could lose out on a
wider level as people who give money spontaneously to someone they
see in need may not be so inclined to make donations to charities