Homelessness and Begging - The Difficult Debate

Council Priorities

With homelessness rising in Coventry and all around the UK, how we react to those asking for money on our streets has become an even greater focus. The debate centres on not only whether the general public should be encouraged or discouraged to give money, but also how the authorities deal with those asking.

A recent example of this debate is demonstrated in the Facebook post below – shared almost 18,000 times (at the time of writing). The image below shows what we presume to be a woman being fined for begging, with the caption stating its disbelief at the action being taken.

I gave my opinion on this issue in the comments, which I have repeated for the purpose of this blog:

“Having worked in homelessness as a qualified professional for over 40 years, with over 30 of those for Coventry Cyrenians, I can honestly say that in my experience most beggars are not homeless.

“Coventry Cyrenians provide more supported housing for single homeless people than any other single agency in Coventry - over 50,000 nights per year. Whilst we are familiar with most beggars, we know many are merely begging to feed an addiction. Others who actually are homeless often refuse offers of beds in large hostels for fear of bullying or exploitation.

“It is extremely worrying that there isn't even a Housing Department in Coventry anymore and one hopes this is not indicative of the priority the Council gives to this appalling problem. At the end of the day, there are very few people who would choose to sleep on the streets given a safe, affordable alternative.

“At Cyrenians we we'd love to provide more for vulnerable people, but have instead seen our services reduce over the last decade or so. We now receive no funding at all from (Coventry) City Council despite providing accommodation for around 130 people at any one time. Perhaps the Council doesn't quite have its priorities right.

“Rather than argue about the rights and wrongs of begging, perhaps people should be writing to their local Councillors urging them to reconsider their strategy in terms of vulnerable people.”


West Midlands Police Poster

Another example of this debate centres around a poster issued by the West Midlands Police which discourages financial giving to those on the street, as ‘giving money to those who beg may actually keep them on the streets’. It suggests to ‘give responsibly’ and ‘support local charities instead.’ The caption provided by the individual who posted this to Twitter makes a call to action, asking those who see the posters to ‘rip them down’.

I have long taken the stance that giving money should be an individual choice. On the other hand, I do not disagree with the notion that those wishing to help through financial support would be better seeking alternatives such as supporting local homelessness organisations. Registered charities like ourselves, alongside local services, are best placed to assist the homeless and vulnerable. You can give with confidence when giving to local charities, but the same cannot be said for a vulnerable individual you see on the streets. Lasting change can only come through long term effective measures provided by local authorities and organisations.

To conclude, there just doesn’t seem to be a consensus among professionals over what is the right course of action with beggars, so I guess it’s up to individual conscience. For me though, I’m happy to offer food and drink. I am however less happy to give cash if I don’t know what that money will be spent on…