Don't feel compelled to give to beggars: Expert

JUST GIVING: A homelessness advocate has urged people not to feel compelled to give money to beggars. Picture: DARREN HOWE
JUST GIVING: A homelessness advocate has urged people not to feel compelled to give money to beggars. Picture: DARREN HOWE

Public anxiety surrounding begging has become more prominent, but individuals should not feel compelled to give money to vagrants, according to an influential homelessness advocate. 

Jenny Smith, chief executive of the Council to Homeless Persons, said while, broadly speaking, homelessness had grown slightly across Victoria in recent years, the public has become aware it is not going away.  

“Where they have been generous in the past, people are becoming less sympathetic,” she said. 

Ms Smith said she understood the issue of begging had become more prominent and volatile across the state in recent years – with reports of commercial beggars in Melbourne – but urged Bendigonians to treat vulnerable individuals with compassion.

“People continue to need our support,” she said.

“The important thing to remember is this is a community problem, much more than of the individual they're facing on the street. 

“People should retain a humanitarian attitude towards these people.

“If they feel they would like to offer someone money, or coffee or food they should continue to do so, but they must not feel they are compelled to.”

A paltry social housing system coupled with a disproportionate rise in rent compared with welfare benefits was making people poorer, and forcing them onto the street, Ms Smith said. 

“We've allowed our housing market to run away like a bushfire for a number of years now and we have quite a big job to do,” she said.

“People are realising it (homelessness) is a problem that needs a lot of political leadership to solve it and we're not getting that leadership.”

The Bendigo Advertiser recently reported police had questioned 11 people for begging alms within the CBD since May 1, 2016, and nine of those have been charged while the other two decisions are pending. 

And last week a Bendigo man was convicted, and given a six-month good behaviour bond, for a begging alms charge in the Bendigo Magistrates’ Court.

Crime Statistics Agency Data showed public nuisance crime rose by 18 per cent in 2016, from 73-86 recorded instances.

Local police said there was no increased focus on beggars, despite mayor Margaret O’Rourke declaring at an April council meeting police would, “move people along and they will shortly issue a summons and start to do that more”.

The judicial process surrounding these charges was “a very expensive way of feeling like we’re doing something”, according to Ms Smith. 

“Is that (charges) appropriate? We’re probably just doing harm,” she said. 

Under the Summary Offences Act 1966, the maximum penalty for begging in alms in Victoria is one year in prison.