Ridding Edinburgh's streets of beggars won’t help to solve homelessness

If the sight of someone who’s down on their luck truly revolts you that much, maybe you don’t deserve to be in Edinburgh’s city centre at all

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The Independent Online

Businesses in Edinburgh are calling for the city’s streets to be cleared of beggars in order to create a ‘harassment-free’ retail district. Why?

Apparently enough complaints have been tallied up by traders and tourists to the point where local group Essential Edinburgh is set to launch a petition that will seek support for a new bylaw prohibiting begging within Edinburgh’s city centre. The move is almost as naïve as it is heartless.

According to Andy Neal, the Chief Executive of Essential Edinburgh, which runs the city-centre business improvement district, beggars are hurting Edinburgh’s economy by scaring tourists away from shops.

“Shoppers just want to avoid them and in the process avoid the store as well,” Neal told The Scotsman. “We also know that hotels have had feedback from guests of different cultures and nationalities saying they were upset by seeing begging and think there are other crimes or underworld activities going on that they should be afraid off.” Are you kidding me?

As a weekly visitor to Edinburgh, I can’t help but wonder what type of naïve and inconsiderate individuals would actually go so far as to complain to a hotel or avoid a shop just because there’s a beggar seated nearby. Walk on Princes Street – the city’s main shopping thoroughfare – any given day, and you might encounter two homeless people per every 1,000 metres. These will almost always be kind men who are silently seated – perhaps with a cardboard sign – and a cup full of change, minding their own business. They don’t take up much space, I’ve never seen one approach a pedestrian and they hardly utter a word. In fact, if it weren’t for their attire or makeshift signs declaring their penury, you might easily mistake them for someone who’d merely grown tired of shopping and had decided to sit down and have a quick break. If only.

I’ve never avoided a shop that I truly wanted to enter just because there was a homeless man hanging around outside – why would anyone? If they make you feel that bad about the obscene amount of money you’re about to spend in one of Edinburgh’s high-end boutique shops, drop 50p in their cup and carry on. But if the sight of someone who’s down on their luck truly revolts you that much, maybe you don’t deserve to be in Edinburgh’s city centre at all. After all, you know what’s even worse than seeing a homeless man take up your valuable shopping space? Being homeless.

Sure, Essential Edinburgh might get their petition turned into law, and then we’ll no longer encounter a couple homeless people on our way to throw money at things we don’t need – and as a result, maybe it would help the city’s trading revenue increase by a fraction of a per cent; however, by allowing this to happen we’d be turning our backs on the people who actually need our help. Ridding the streets of beggars won’t help to curb the city’s issue of homelessness – it will merely brush it under the rug.  Shouldn’t we place more emphasis upon helping people get a roof over their heads before we turn to ask what we can do to improve the lives of our wealthy shop owners?

Five years ago, the world was outraged by the ‘social cleansing’ Beijing carried out before the start of the 2008 Olympic Games. They removed beggars, homeless people and all other social ‘undesirables’ from the city so that tourists wouldn’t be scared off by the real face of Beijing. In fact, that’s exactly the sort of behaviour that's caused many to declare the Chinese government a violator of human rights. If the people of Edinburgh seriously consider this proposal to ‘cleanse’ their streets, what makes them any better?