Begs Questions

For five years, Shaaban Waziri spent his days scanning faces in the crowds. Working the streets of London, he would wait impatiently for the next flash of kindness that would bring him his next hit.

On good days, the former kitchen porter would make up to 500 a day, 95 per cent of which would feed his crack habit. Clean now for four years, Shaaban is adamant about one thing: those acts of charity almost killed him.

The 45-year-old Tanzanian is backing Westminster Council’s hard-hitting poster campaign, Killing with Kindness.

Launched last month, it seeks to eradicate people’s desire to give directly to beggars, convincing them that their money goes straight on drugs.

Depicting the outline of a dead person, its shape filled with coins, the posters are part of the Conservative-led authority’s determination to clean up its streets and move the homeless into hostels and building-based services.

The campaign is proving controversial, not least with many of those sleeping rough in central London. These men and women speak with anger of how they are being deprived of their ability to get through the day by the hardening of public attitudes.

Their views are echoed in part by some homelessness charities, including Shelter and Crisis, who accuse Westminster of diverting attention away from the real issue: a continuing lack of resources, most acute in the lack of readily available rehabilitation programmes.

Waziri recalls how he would raise money by targeting women, asking for 50p but often receiving much more. “It’s amazing. When you are high you feel like you are the king of the streets. You will raise that money. You make 70, go off, smoke it, then you’re back again.”

Whether we are helping someone when we hand over our small change is something that most who give choose not to dwell on. According to one survey on our attitudes towards giving, almost half of us give at some point, with over a third believing we can identify when the need is genuine.1 Many, though, will not want to think of the implications of their act beyond its recognition of a person in need.

But Waziri, who now works for the charity Thames Reach Bondway, which started London’s first zero tolerance campaign with Camden Council in 2003, has little doubt about the consequences of giving: “That money goes straight on drugs or alcohol. An average person begging can raise 50 in a day. You don’t need that much money to feed yourself for a day. Some are spending part of it on food, but almost all of it is going on drugs.”

He adds: “Any addiction is a powerful thing and it is not easy to break its bond. You need the money to feed the habit, but the more money you get, the more sick you become. Giving people money on the streets doesn’t help them.”

As part of its campaign, Westminster is pursuing the argument that most who beg in central London are not homeless. Councillors triumphantly cite the results of tests carried out on all 413 arrested for begging last year which showed 70 per cent had crack or heroin in their bloodstreams. Of those arrested, only 40 per cent said they were homeless.

Those last figures are contested by Shelter. The homelessness charity has hit out at the campaign, saying that it serves to stigmatise vulnerable people and move the problem to other boroughs.

Head of policy Mark Thomas points out that although many beggars are not necessarily sleeping rough, many will have insecure accommodation.

“They will be yo-yoing between hostel to street because there is little help out there for them. Westminster Council should be putting the money spent on this campaign into tackling the root of the problem, rather than further excluding people,” he says.

Defending the zero tolerance policy on begging and rough sleeping, Westminster’s lead on community protection, councillor Audrey Lewis, says she sees the approachas the “only option” forthe council.”This old-style benevolence to these people simply isn’tgood enough, it doesn’t work in the long run”, she says. With 1,300 hostel beds in Westminster and 3,000 across London, she says the argument that beds are not available is “rather a glib excuse”.

Rolling shelters are readily available, she insists, with longer term accommodation provided within two to three weeks.

Most working in the sector, along with those on the streets, agree that the rough sleeper’s familiar pitch of needing money to get into a hostel for the night is untrue. But not all. Pete B, 28, from south Dublin, argues that he has been waiting to get into a hostel for weeks. With palpable degrees of anger and pride in his voice, he says the only hostel places available are so grim that sleeping rough is a better option.

“The hostels are full of crack heads, most of them are disgusting places. All most of us want is a chance to stay somewhere decent for the night, to have a good wash and a change of clothes,” he says.

Barry, 41 is a former crack and heroin addict originally from Camden. He was recently moved into a St Mungo’s hostel in Covent Garden, from where he continues to beg. The hostel houses 93 people but is soon to close down for refurbishment. Although the charity insists that all those in the hostel will be housed, the added uncertainty in Barry’s transitory existence is distressing him. He says: “I don’t know where I’ll go and it is a worry. They say there’ll be places, but I won’t believe it until I see it.” He says attitudes towards those begging have changed massively since he first went onto the streets in the early 1990s.

Kerry, 21, agrees. She came to London from Newcastle when she was 13. Kerry admits that like most people begging, she will sometimes use the money for drugs. But she adds: “It’s a lie to say that there are always beds for people. There aren’t. It’s people’s attitude towards you that turns you to drugs, the way that they look at you. People do it to take the pain away.”

The council is of course not alone in its decision to get tough with begging. In 2003, not long before the Vagrancy Act 1824 was strengthened to make the act of begging a recordable offence, Nottingham Council launched its own zero tolerance campaign, distributing posters bearing a picture of a beggar with the slogan: “Please give generously, my drug dealer needs a new gun”.

It had the desired impact: the council claims begging in the city centre went down by 85 per cent. Leeds followed suit with its own crackdown, reducing the number of repeat beggars to a handful, while Bristol and Brighton and Hove have adopted similar policies.

Whether Westminster’s approach could be taken up in other affected parts of London remains to be seen. Some, including many on the streets, contend the crackdown has done little other than move the problem to other boroughs, but that claim is denied by Westminster, workers at Thames Reach Bondway and outreach workers in neighbouring Lambeth.

Considering where the campaign will go from here, Lewis says she would welcome a pan-London consensus on how best to tackle begging, but eschews any notion that the council would need to soften its approach to gain wider approval.

The question over the extent to which people should be afforded the liberty to make their own decisions is one that many in the sector will have grappled with. Shaks Ghosh, chief executive of Crisis, says that giving money is sometimes the only way of creating a bond with a person who feels alienated from mainstream society.

“We all have a responsibility to our fellow human beings. But whether we should give or not is a diversion from the true issue of providing enough resources to offer genuine long-term solutions to the problems these often very vulnerable people face.”

  1. British Social Attitudes Survey, The National Centre for Social Research, 2001

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