Amicus Curiae: It Beggars Belief – Why Wellington Wants to Ban Begging

Pooja Upadhyay, Content Contributor

Concerns over the behaviour and growing presence of street beggars in the nation’s largest cities have increased pressures on city councils to take action. Retailers and pedestrians alike have expressed frustration with beggars aggressively targeting passers-by. This has resurfaced the nation-wide street begging problem that must be dealt with through a combination of long and short-term solutions. Wellington City Council has attracted significant attention in providing a variety of recommendations, some of which take a legal approach.

One of the few legal recommendations proposed seeks to tackle the issue of street begging by fining people for begging on busy streets and in specific areas. This could be problematic for a number of reasons. If the council were to appease retailers by allowing beggars to beg only in isolated areas, beggars would come across fewer people willing to spend money and donate to them. Consequently, beggars would be poorer and hungrier. Also, fining beggars who disobey would place on beggars an additional burden they cannot financially bear.

As a result of curbing the capacity for begging to be a successful survival option, beggars may move towards more substantial social welfare and employment solutions. However, some beggars have found that policies like the benefit are unable to pull beggars out of the cycle of poverty, hence why they have made the decision to beg in the first place. Additionally, fining beggars and hiding them away in non-commercial areas may push these desperate and disenfranchised citizens toward criminal behaviour such as theft. This is more damaging than any visual pollution or general annoyance proponents of the fines may suffer.

Another proposed legal solution is to fine citizens who choose to give their money to beggars. However, this would be excessively intrusive on the rights of citizens to do with their property as they please. Furthermore, it would discourage acts of altruism. Condemning compassionate and empathetic behaviour sends a damaging message to members of the community. In deterring citizens from donating to beggars, society may be led to perceive beggars as unwanted social pariahs, without any consideration of the multifaceted deeper socio-political and economic issues that have contributed to their lives. This notion is unhelpful in the pursuit towards effective policy solutions.

Nevertheless, these recommendations provide a strong attempt at coping with concerns over public safety and the overall health of society. Recently, beggars have been placed on the public agenda in light of harassment experienced by vulnerable citizens and restaurant goers as well as tourists. Disruptive and harmful behaviour must be acted upon.

However, we must also recognise the destructive habits and cycles many beggars suffer. Although finding accurate data on beggars is challenging, it is suggested that a number of beggars use their money to fund their drug and alcohol addictions. Thus the argument follows that donating directly to beggars, fuels their dependency on begging and on substances, which ultimately prevents them from getting out of their dire situations. Giving money to beggars may also be problematic because in certain circumstances, scammers pose as beggars and exploit the kindness of unsuspecting citizens.

Regulations like the Public Safety and Nuisance bylaw are already at play in maintaining public order in Auckland. However, the persistence of street begging issues may be indicative of a need for harsher legal approaches to regulate begging more effectively. The root causes of begging involve a multitude of daunting issues such as rising house prices, unemployment, limited education, and other cultural setbacks, and yet the focus tends to fall on short-term solutions. City councils must balance the variety of tensions at play to come up with viable and sustainable policy outcomes. Along with the general goal of improving social welfare services, the Wellington City Council’s non-legal recommendations include vouchers that regulate beggar consumer choices, initiatives that discourage public donations to beggars, and the mobilisation of street teams that assist beggars in engaging more effectively with social services.

Street begging is often seen as just another perennial characteristic of city life. However, others remain more optimistic about the efficacy of councils and community groups in changing the face of city streets for the better. Nevertheless, in contributing to discourse on street begging, it is important to humanise beggars to ensure we recognise the humanity behind unfavourable labels.

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