Begging – a complex national issue

6 April 2016

A report commissioned by Wellington City Council confirms begging is a complex issue with many tragic causes and unwelcome effects.

'Any spare change please' sign.

A report (4MB PDF) commissioned by Wellington City Council confirms begging is a complex issue with many tragic causes and unwelcome effects.

The report will be discussed by the Community, Sport and Recreation Committee next Wednesday (13 April) and Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says the Council will look at a range of social issues to try and combat the problem.

“The issue of begging is important for retailers, visitors and locals and the people doing the begging,” she says. 

"Begging is a symptom of wider issues - lack of mental health services, people's addictions and lack of joined-up programmes when people are paroled from prison without housing options being sorted. It also detracts from the look and feel of the city.

“Increasing housing supply, funding the Night Shelter to be open in the daytime, and encouraging people to contact health services are all part of the answer.

“Criminalising the most vulnerable people in the city will not solve the issue so I don't support a ban on begging,” she says.

Mayor Wade-Brown says agencies including the Council need to work with the causes and not just the symptoms of begging.

The Council already funds a City Host programme to engage with beggars and work with them.

The City Outlook programme links with 12 other city agencies to cover a wide range of needs for people with nowhere to sleep and no resources, among them beggars.

Wellington’s smart city technology is currently being trialled and will in time provide data identifying “hot spots” where beggars congregate providing an opportunity for appropriate agencies to intervene.

“Beggars are in need of support and the problem cannot be resolved by one agency alone, we all need to work together,” she says.

Cr Paul Eagle, Chair of the Community, Sport and Recreation Committee, agrees.

“A begging bylaw would be a failure – there’s no evidence from cities with bylaws banning begging to suggest that it brings it to an end or significantly reduces it.

“It would also be irresponsible of us too – begging would move from one part of the city to another and across the region. An unintended consequence could also see a rise in crime as beggars seek new ways of finding money.”

The report follows an analysis of begging in Wellington including interviews with beggars, retailers and businesspeople, members of the general public and staff of organisations working with members of the begging community.

Begging as an issue is of growing concern to Wellingtonians, according to the report.

Its profile of begging was raised as a result of the 2014 national quality of life survey which provided comparative data across six New Zealand cities. The survey showed concerns about begging by the people of Wellington were significantly higher than the national average with 75% of those surveyed saying it was either “a bit of a problem” (53%) or “a big problem” (22%).

Cr Eagle says begging is a symptom of social problems nationally that have unfortunately worsened for Wellington City.

“Wellingtonians are worried about begging – it’s a significant problem for our city. But we’ve never fully understood the reasons why people beg. The reports give us a clear direction on creating meaningful, long-term change through a new approach,” he says.

Some findings from the reports

Begging is ‘effective’
The project found that, at its most basic level, begging is ‘effective’ – and that Wellingtonians are relatively generous when compared with people from other cities. There are currently enough people who feel good about giving to those who beg. And those who beg are mostly getting what they need from it. 

Begging a growing problem
On the other hand more Wellingtonians than the national average think begging is a growing problem. The Council and police report a steady stream of calls about begging. These include calls expressing concern about the welfare of those begging as well as concerns about perceptions of public safety, the impact on retail and reputational damage to the city. A number of Council stakeholders including social services agencies, the police, the Inner City Residents Association, retailers and the wider business community are increasingly interested in the issue

Public empathy for beggars
The project report suggests a significant level of public empathy with those who beg. In the light of this, the Council and other agencies might wish to consider how the kindheartednesses and generosity of many Wellingtonians can be harnessed effectively as part of approaches to end begging.
There is also some confusion among Wellingtonians about who is begging:  whether people are begging from genuine need or whether the primary focus is anti-social and criminal behaviour. While some citizens appear able to distinguish between the two, others are confused and unsure about whom they are comfortable giving to. 

Safe public space to be enjoyed by everyone
Mechanisms to formulate appropriate responses to the individuals involved are not sufficient in Wellington, criminal and social issues are entangled and relevant agencies appear unsure how to respond. 
The Council and its partners are already working together to ensure public space can be used and enjoyed safely by everyone. However the committee report recommends the Council adopt a robust policy position on begging which will enable it to give clear public messages on its response to begging in Wellington. 

Community services and job creation
Council departments could look at how their services and facilities might offer community activities, volunteering opportunities and practical help with budgeting and job-seeking. 
Job-creation – the Council could review how to improve the scope for it to work directly as an employer and contractor as well as with government departments and businesses to encourage and facilitate relevant job creation schemes and pathways to employment. This might include creating a pool of benevolent employers and job brokerage programmes.