Last week, posters at all large London Underground stations evoked the sinister- sounding concept of the 'professional' beggar. They suggest that passengers should give money to charity instead.
Many of these professionals work in gangs, pose as being homeless, and rip off the public, London Underground said. British Transport Police officers have been arresting increasing numbers for begging on the Tube, which is illegal under a pre-war by-law.
London Underground says its initiative is in response to an average of 15 to 20 complaints a week from customers who objected to being harassed on journeys around the capital. Last week, many passengers supported the action.
Pauline McDonald, a buyer waiting for her train at King's Cross, said: 'They should be stopped. It can be quite difficult to say 'no' sometimes and I think it's a matter of choice whether you give or not.'
Andrea, 'in marketing', objected to being approached on the trains although she did not mind beggars at Tube stations, where she could walk past more easily.
Rajiv, a doctor, thought the campaign would go down well: 'People like to believe beggars are organised into gangs and don't deserve anything.'
However, Shelter, the charity for the homeless, said: 'It is a personal, moral issue whether you walk past people or not.' It questioned whether 'professional' beggars merited only condemnation.
Sitting in the entrance of Green Park station in Piccadilly last Thursday, Paul said he begged every day and had no other source of income. Was he a 'professional' and hence 'exploiting' the public? He said his Polish wife made it impossible for him to claim social security. Sometimes he received as much as pounds 3 to pounds 4 an hour, he said, but he did not work in a gang.
According to Paul, beggars can hardly be said to be a problem. 'You get the odd person who shouts at you but the majority don't see us,' he said.
At Victoria station, Mark, 18, from Cornwall, appeared to conform more closely to London Underground's concept of a 'professional' beggar. He worked with several other young men, he said, ensuring that each got a decent patch on which to beg. His mornings were spent in Stratford, east London, his afternoons in the city centre and his nights on a park bench.
Unlike Mark, who relies wholly on begging, Sally said she drew income support of pounds 33 a week but supplemented this from time to time by asking people if they could 'spare any change' at Vauxhall station.
'I come here for as long as it takes to make a fiver or however much I need,' she said.
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