Leading Article: Helping beggars to be choosers

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The Independent Online
THERE is no shortage of prejudice about beggars, but little documentation. Crisis, a charity for the homeless, has performed a useful service in interviewing 145 of them in central London. A quarter had slept rough before the age of 16. Almost half of them had been in care as children. One in three had a history of mental illness, and as many a drink or drug problem. More encouragingly, 90 per cent had worked at some stage of their lives, 63 per cent said they wanted to work, and 85 per cent regarded begging as a temporary phase.

The bleakness of most of their existences was vividly expressed by one man in his early twenties who had no contact with any agencies and no one with whom to talk things over. Asked if he had any immediate hopes or plans, he replied: 'You might not believe me - to die as soon as possible.'

These are the people John Major described last May as an eyesore that could drive tourists and shoppers away. In what was perhaps a trial run for his recent attack on yob culture, he called begging offensive and unnecessary, and suggested that the law should be used against it.

In one respect he was right. The spectacle of people begging arouses strong emotions. In some passers- by it will be anger, especially if they feel threatened: one in three beggars questioned by Crisis had been physically assaulted, more than a third sexually harassed and two- thirds verbally abused. In a rather larger number it will be a mixture of embarrassment, pity and guilt. Everyone would be happier if there were no beggars around to prompt these unwelcome reactions. But that would be possible only in a state with draconian laws ruthlessly enforced.

Yet there is, as Crisis suggests, no shortage of measures the Government could take to reduce both the number of beggars and the level of misery that they represent. A change in benefit rules in 1988 made it very difficult for 16- and 17- year-olds to qualify for even a very low level of income support.

The 'rough sleepers' initiative' - government help for charities assisting those sleeping rough in winter in London - could be extended to other cities, and day centres enabled to stay open longer. The Vagrancy Act of 1824, which criminalises beggars, should be repealed, and police trained to give information about the best sources of advice on housing, benefits, cheap food and warmth. Such small steps would cut the number of those who see no alternative to begging as a means of keeping themselves alive. The Prime Minister might be surprised how welcome they would be to the general public.