But some were not quite what they seemed. When police moved in to arrest one, he had on him not only a notice pleading that he was hungry and homeless but also pounds 200 cash, a bank book indicating that he had pounds 300 savings, a home address and a card stating that he was available for work.
Among British cities, Bath has a particular problem because its beggars are concentrated in a very small town centre and they are very visible. Most are peaceful, but a minority demand money with menaces. As begging intensified near Christmas, special constables were used to arrest persistent offenders.
The operation ran for more than two months. 'We've been bringing in about five a week. On average they were earning pounds 40 a day and pounds 10 an hour appeared to be the going rate on a good pitch,' Insp Mike Field said.
A minority were earning up to pounds 100 daily. Arrests were made between 5pm and 7pm when the city centre is at its busiest and beggars target shoppers and office workers heading home.
'We had complaints from traders about beggars outside their premises and from people claiming they had been approached aggressively. We used special constables so regular officers could deal with a spate of burglaries and other serious crimes,' Insp Field said.
The policy of beggar patrols will now be reviewed. But the long-term problem appears intractable.
Ill-fated initiatives include a scheme to dissuade people from giving beggars money direct. Instead, they were asked to drop donations into boxes distributed to shops and pubs.
The idea was to help fund a night shelter and soup kitchen. The scheme was greeted with derision by several beggars, but Insp Field remains hopeful that some elements of it will be rescued this year.
He is already encouraged by one trend. 'More people are giving food instead of money. That's a good thing,' he said.
Nevertheless, in the run-up to Christmas the daily 'earnings' of beggars were often higher than those of many manual workers or people in the catering trade. And one, at least, appears to have been laughing all the way to the bank.Reuse content