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Opinion: We beg to differ

News

Cite as: November 2011 85(11) LIJ, p.24

The criminal offence of begging should be abolished.

Criminalising begging is tantamount to criminalising poverty. It perpetuates, rather than alleviates, the marginalisation and disadvantage experienced by people who beg. It also violates the fundamental human rights of some of the most vulnerable in our society.

The current approach disproportionately affects those who circumstance have already denied basic necessities such as food, shelter and health care, and then adds to their disadvantage by denying them even the basic right to communicate and seek to deal with their plight.

The use of imprisonment, fines and community-based orders as a response to begging fails to deal with the underlying causes of this behaviour. These punishments, contained in the Summary Offences Act, ignore the reality that people who beg are among the most marginalised and isolated in society.

Begging is usually a last resort activity, engaged in to supplement income and meet subsistence needs. Fining people for such activity exacerbates the causes that underlie it and may encourage people to engage in other illegal income – supplementing activities such as shoplifting, drug dealing and prostitution. Incarcerating people for such activity also fails to deal with underlying causes and may further jeopardise often tenuous relationships between the individual, his or her family and friends, and society generally.

The PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic (HPLC) undertook a survey of people begging in the Melbourne CBD. The survey revealed the reality of the lives of those who beg. It found that:

  • 73 per cent were long-term unemployed;
  • over 50 per cent had a mental illness;
  • 23 per cent had experienced domestic or family violence; and
  • almost 90 per cent were sleeping rough or in squats, or lived in a men’s refuge or rooming house.

A more effective response to begging is to deal with its causes: alleviate the disadvantage of those who beg, and particularly their need for food, shelter and health care. To deal with the underlying causes of begging in a way that respects the human rights of those who engage in begging, the HPLC calls for:

  • increasing the availability of quality, secure, crisis, transitional, supported and low cost accommodation;
  • providing income supplements to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness who have had social security payments reduced or cut off for reasons associated with homelessness;
  • increasing the availability and outreach capabilities of quality drug, alcohol and gambling addiction support services;
  • developing and implementing protocols and a comprehensive training program for law enforcement officers to increase their understanding of issues underlying homelessness and begging and to encourage them, where appropriate, to make referrals to welfare agencies and service providers; and
  • investigating the feasibility of establishing a centralised referral centre to facilitate the provision of services to people who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

JAMES FARRELL is manager and principal lawyer of the PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic. For more information see www.pilch.org.au/wewantchange.

Sam’s story

Sam is 55 and has been unemployed for a long time. Sam explained she found it very difficult to reconnect with Centrelink services to access social security benefits and her only form of income was the money she got from begging. On drug dependency, Sam explained that if she couldn’t beg she would have to resort to something else because “the body doesn’t allow you to give up drugs unless you are networked in to services and have somewhere to sleep and eat. It’s a physical illness”. Further, she says that the main things she needs are to get her “health in order, so I’m not in pain, so I don’t need to self-medicate . . . [and] a steady form of income. Getting to Centrelink at this stage would only mean one day off begging. Centrelink payment needs to go hand in hand with a detox program. I’m not well enough to do it on my own.”

John’s story

John, 35, struggles with a significant mental illness and has a physical disability. John sleeps rough and his only form of income is money earned from begging, which he does for more than six hours a day, every day. He needs to beg to pay for food and other essentials. John explained he doesn’t enjoy begging as it doesn’t make him feel good about himself and is made worse by the physical and verbal abuse he experiences while begging.

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