John Vane: street begging scenes

John Vane: street begging scenes

John Vane is a citizen of London who walks a lot and often makes things up, though that doesn’t mean they are untrue.

Street begging creates a moral dilemma for Londoners – for some of us at any rate. Those who beg are a familiar feature of my neighbourhood, encountered when walking along its shopping street. Their faces are familiar. I even know the names of two of them.

One, a young woman, rake-thin, strides up to passing fellow females addressing them as “Mum”. This might not be intended as a guilt-tripping shock tactic, but it has the same effect as one. I am told she sells sexual services to supplement her income. She has addiction written all over her.

Another, also female, is older with missing teeth and filthy clothes. She is known to a hostel for the homeless not far away, though she sometimes seems to sleep in the front yards of local houses, concealed by low hedges and walls. There is an obvious mental health mess at play here, and just the sight of her produces a heavy hopelessness in me. Heaven knows how she must feel.

Should you give to street beggars or not? Some people do as a matter of course, confident that their generosity helps the homeless, but not all beggars are rough sleepers, just as not all rough sleepers beg. And leaders of some homelessness charities, urge us to do no such thing. Most street beggars, they say, are in the grip of ruinous dependencies, which our pounds and pennies only help sustain.

I can see what they mean. One day, walking home, a friend of mine spotted a fiver on the pavement ahead of her. A saintly soul, she was looking around for who might have dropped the note even before she’d reached it. She picked it up. As she did so, a man came up behind her, a tall, stooped, ragged-arsed man with a desperate look in his eyes. She’d often seen him around, soliciting passers by: “Any change, guv? Any change?”

My friend gave him the fiver and he was gone. Gone back along the pavement. Gone back to where a betting shop was. Gone through the door of that betting shop door where, my friend surmised, he might well spend most of his days, stepping out now and then to scrape together what he needed for his next wager. My friend felt conned. I would have felt the same.

Perhaps we need to take a broader view. Perhaps the real problem is indifference. Most Londoners, I think, would like to see street begging gone, some out of compassion, some out of loathing – not everyone feels pity, even in the abstract, for those sorry and sometimes cunning figures who sit on our city’s pavements with their hands out – and some just to be relieved of the conflict in their consciences.

We could do a lot by doing more. We could dial 101 and ask the police to intervene. Some beggars really are just fraudsters, some are in desperate need of help and some are a bit of both. The police can treat each case accordingly. Homeless charities have helplines. And if you don’t want to give money to deserving cases, given them food if that is what they say they want.

If more of us acted in these ways, the pressure for more action from the authorities would grow. Street begging will never leave London completely, but we can do a lot of good if we stop just walking by. I wonder if I will.

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