This is day two of my 365 Day Blog Challenge.
The prompt: “something that’s illegal but you think should be legal.”
The State Government of Victoria Summary Offences Act 1966 – SECT 49A states:
49A. Begging or gathering alms
(1) A person must not beg or gather alms.
Penalty: 12 months imprisonment.
(2) A person must not cause, procure or encourage a child to beg or gather alms.
Penalty: 12 months imprisonment. (source)
During my time on the street I did have to resort to begging to survive. It wasn’t a day-to-day activity but something I did when I had no other choice. If I hadn’t eaten for days, I would beg in order to do so. If I needed a new pair of socks, I would try to raise the funds to purchase some. If I was having a bad mental health day, I would try to raise the capital to fund an activity to counteract it. If I couldn’t take the streets any longer, I would attempt to gather the money for a night’s accommodation.
Begging was a humiliating, demeaning and soul-destroying activity that I did only because I had to, never once because I wanted to.
And I’m not the only person to feel this way:
‘I hate it, but I’ve got no choice. It’s very embarrassing.’
(Male, aged 40, Swanston Street, 17 March 2005) [source]
‘I feel depressed and ashamed, I’ve hit rock bottom, but I’ve got to survive.’
(Male, aged 37, Bourke Street, 31 March 2005) [source]
‘I feel “shitful” and embarrassed. You’d never do it if you didn’t have to.’
(Male, aged 38, Elizabeth Street, 1 March 2005) [source]
If you were to talk to those who beg the answers you’ll receive will be a variation of the same. It is humiliating, demeaning, shameful, embarrassing, necessary.
People are not begging to live; they are doing so to survive.
And yet in spite of overwhelming evidence discussing the problems beggars face, the reasons they do it or the simple reality that government benefits are not enough to survive on, there are still many people who believe it should remain illegal.
The “Alcohol and Drugs” Argument:
“No matter how impoverished they look they are trying to deceive you. If there [sic] benefits are insufficient then they are feeding a drug or booze habit, and your money is either going to booze manufaturers [sic] or drug dealers.” [source]
Easily the most common argument levelled at begging and, for the record, I’m not naive enough to think there isn’t some truth to it. I myself – even when homeless – have been asked for change by people who clearly needed it to feed a habit.
Not all beggars are trying to deceive you. Most are genuine individuals trying to survive who find themselves tainted and stereotyped by the few who are misleading people.
The “Let’s Just Make Up Facts” Argument:
“And heres [sic] the thing too, its a [sic] known fact that 99% of them don’t need to be begging.
Half of them are not homeless at all, but just dress up and play the part to get a free handout.
The others are homeless by choice because they choose to spend their money on drugs and alcohol rather than shelter. But somehow there are enough stupid people out there that don’t know any better than to give them money and keep them around.” [source]
It is a known fact that 99% of them don’t need to be begging. Really? Could you point me to the research that supports this wild assumption? Until then I have no time for you or your opinion.
The “Shaun of the Homeless” Argument:
“We cannot even possibly think of making begging legal. If we did, not only would the numbers of beggars grow dramatically, we would not be able to walk down the streets without being constantly harassed for money.
By making begging legal we are only discouraging these people from getting jobs because we will pay for everything for them.” [source]
There are people in this world who believe if we make begging illegal they wouldn’t be able to leave their house without being swamped by homeless people too lazy to get a job. Seriously?
As for the ‘discouraging these people from getting jobs’, in early 2010, whilst living in a Melbourne park I managed to obtain a job interview. After failing to find clothing to wear at this interview from several support agencies I had no option but to turn to the streets to beg.
I was trying to do exactly what all the naysayers advise me to do. Alas, I was unable to obtain the attire I required and spent an entire night in a 24 hr public toilet hand washing and drying a pair of jeans/ scruffy orange shirt replete with holes; the smartest clothes I had.
Needless to say I didn’t get the job.
The ‘Big Mac’ Argument:
“Having had a group of thugs loom over me, asking “can you spare some money?” I have seen first hand why begging needs to be a criminal offence: it’s essential for dealing with – well, muggers, basically!
Next time a beggar asks for money for ‘a cup of coffee’/’big mac’/’bus fare’/’phone call’ try offering to *provide* that service: buying them the coffee/food or paying direct to the driver/into the phone.
Odds on, you’ll get sworn at. They’ll almost certainly decline. I have heard of *one* case of a beggar taking up the offer to have a big mac bought for him – from a friend who has been making this offer to beggars for well over a decade.” [source]
This has always been a particular favourite of mine. Let’s put aside the dubious nutritional content of a Big Mac and focus on something that is slightly more obvious: a Big Mac contains meat, some people don’t eat meat.
The other reason I don’t like this argument is because I think it’s total and utter bullshit!
During my entire time homeless, on all the occasions I was forced to beg, I never once had anyone offer to buy me food instead of giving me money. If they had I would have accepted it in an instant.
In November 2009 I had to attend an appointment with Centrelink in relation to my benefits. This appointment was in Box Hill, approximately 15km from Melbourne CBD. I had no money to cover transportation so I attempted to walk. Having never been to Box Hill I became spectacularly lost and thus missed the appointment.
Whilst re-arranging the appointment I was offered a last-minute cancellation. Desperate to attend I accepted the appointment knowing I would need to beg, as there was not enough time to walk on this occasion.
My position was close to a major CBD train station. After nearly half an hour a woman turned to me and said “What do you need the money for?”
“I need to catch a train to Box Hill for a Centrelink appointment,”
“Box Hill?” She spat at me. “Why do you need to go to Box Hill, there’s a Centrelink in South Melbourne,”
“It’s where they want me to go, could you…”
“I’m not going to give you money for a ticket but I will buy you a two-hour metcard from the machine,”
“Will you? Fantastic, thank you very much,”
She literally stood there in total confusion before saying. “Oh,”
Slightly confused I watched her turn and walk away. She had expected me to refuse her offer, most likely with a tirade of abuse, but I hadn’t and she had no idea what to do.
That was the only occasion someone offered to provide the service I was begging for, and after I accepted it, it was refused. So personally I cannot take this argument seriously as I don’t believe they’re genuine.
The reality is people beg for survival. They are not doing it for fun or jest. They are not doing it because they enjoy humiliating themselves. They are doing it because they are not able to sustain a life for themselves or their family.
Be it as a result of mental illness, addiction, low rates of social security benefits or a combination of all of the above, people are forced into begging as a means to an end.
Until begging is legalised all that is happening is those who need help the most are being punished for needing help in the first place.
Personally, I think we should be debating and implementing better ways of helping people rather than continuing to criminalize those who are merely trying to survive?
Begging should not be illegal, pure and simple.
A selection of articles you may enjoy:
- My last post… [365 Day Challenge] 001. Hopes. Dreams. Plans
- Some things are the same the world over (fencepost.wordpress.com)
- My Homeless Problem (shanehalbach.com)
- To Give Or Not To Give (markwshead.com)
- ‘Help me,’ homeless man begs as cops fatally beat him in videotaped incident (news.blogs.cnn.com)