Exeter Community Safety Partnership, led by Exeter City Council and Devon and Cornwall Police, has launched a new campaign called Exeter Against Begging that is begging the question - have these people ever met a homeless person? While there may be a few rare individuals around who aren't poor and homeless and actually enjoy asking people for spare change, most beggars are simply individuals who have had very bad luck. Teenagers fleeing abuse at home, women escaping domestic violence. They may not be permanently homeless, but they still need to eat when they end up on the streets. Many of these people suffer from physical or mental health issues, or substance abuse problems. Most people think of cocaine or heroin when they think of substance abuse on the streets, and the wording of the anti-begging campaign plays on this assumption, but there is evidence that the most harmful drug in this area is actually alcohol.
Years ago I met a man in this city who was kicked out of his house by his wife and had nowhere else to go. Depressed and alone he took to sleeping on the cold hard streets and, thankfully, after some time was found by a local charity that set him up with some prospects. Several years later he is a regular Big Issue seller and a breath of fresh air when I'm walking down the High Street, and he even rents a small room in a flat - but due to drug dealers working next door and having his own door kicked in by their clients several times, he is considering taking to the streets again - if he can work out a way of remaining presentable for his job selling the Issue, which he has now been doing, 9 to 5, 5 days a week, for well over 4 years.
Note that I used the word 'working' regarding those drug dealers. Illegal though the profession may be, they are earning a living. On the other hand, our society cannot fathom an individual who is perceived to be getting something for nothing, and that is why beggars are generally seen as the lowest of the low, regardless of their reasons for begging. Indeed, the new advertising campaign seals this line of thought, with the tagline: 'I said I was homeless and hungry. But I spent your money on drugs'.
This is why Exeter resident Tim King, after seeing the posters warning that all beggars spend donated cash on drugs, founded the Facebook group Exeter against Exeter Against Begging. Tim says 'The reaction to my anti campaign campaign has been amazing. I started the group and cobbled together the 'spoof' poster because I found the Exeter Community Safety Initiative campaign of demonisation totally unacceptable. I still do - and the council are still defending it.'
Furthermore, the research cited on the Council's website as part of the anti-begging campaign is vague and possibly incorrect - for example the website states that: 'Money handed over is often spent on drugs or alcohol or to fund a comfortable lifestyle away from the streets.' I wonder how 'comfortable' alcohol dependency or addiction to a drug like heroin can really be?
The website also vaguely quotes evidence 'that beggars can earn up to £80 a day', with no links to studies proving this, no solid information regarding how often this much money can be made by a beggar, and no indication as to whether the figure applies to Exeter or is, say, a London-based figure. My search for the missing research found only tabloid articles where reporters had supposedly been told by beggars that they sometimes earned large sums on Friday and Saturday nights - hardly research that can be cited as reputable 'evidence'.
Personally I would like to know how much was spent on the anti-begging campaign.
Meanwhile, Councillor Simon Bowkett stated in a recent radio interview that Exeter Community Safety Partnership should read the media guide by the UK's leading independent centre of expertise on drugs, DrugScope, which warns of the dangers of 'demonising and stigmatising of drug users, simplifying complex issues into scaremongering headlines, and stereotyping drug users as 'evil' junkies capable of anything to gain their fix.' (pp 69-71)
Demonising is the easiest option, though, for dealing with Britain's invisible people. We don't want to know why beggars are doing what they're doing, or what their backgrounds are; we don't want to be accosted by them or reminded that they are our problem, ie society's problem. At least we know that those aggressive street sellers are paid a wage, have employers who hold them accountable, wear clean uniforms, etc. Statistically, homeless people are more likely to suffer from mental health problems, and that's another taboo in our society and one we'd rather avoid being confronted with while out shopping. The anti-begging campaign does nothing to get these people off the streets, and indeed that is not its intention. All it does is hit out a problem that society needs to address in order to better, which means it is, to reappropriate the anti-begging campaign's wording, 'probably doing more harm than good.'
There is a petition on Change.org calling for the wording of the Exeter-based advertising campaign to be made less offensive and less demonising of society's most vulnerable people. Because after all, most beggars do want more than just your change - they want social change too.