Beggar déja vu

By Meg Hill

“Police have arrested 77 city beggars this year, many of whom were either drug users or professional beggars.”

This is a familiar start to an article about city beggars. But it’s not from the recent news surge. It’s a Herald Sun article from November 2000.

This July a similar, but smaller, police operation targeted a number of apparent “professional” beggars in the city.

Police charged seven people with beg alms. It’s alleged those charged were Chinese nationals on tourist visas operating as part of an organised syndicate and are not truly homeless.

This ignited claims that those “fake” beggars were taking advantage of Melburnians’ goodwill and ruining the reputation of the genuinely disadvantaged. 

We’ve heard this before.

A 1996 article from The Age reported a police crackdown on “professional” beggars in the city: 93 people were charged with begging-related offences. But begging is illegal whether or not the beggar is homeless, no statistics were offered on how many of those were deemed “professionals” or how. 

In 2015, The Age reported an apparent rising phenomenon of “professional beggars” in the city. Of 135 people caught begging in the city, only nine were alleged to be “professionals”. Then Lord Mayor Robert Doyle said they (“professionals”) “gave begging such an awful public image”.

In 2016, the Herald Sun referred to Elizabeth St as Melbourne’s “skid row”, and alleged beggars’ behaviour threatened our reputation as the world’s most liveable city – not because the fact that part of the community were resorting to begging suggested inequality, but because the beggars were disturbing tourists and encroaching on limited pavement space. 

In 2017, the Herald Sun described city beggars as a “growing sore” that unfortunately “festered” during the Australian Open: “Melburnians cannot be held hostage to street takeovers and groups of sham beggars looking to supplement their welfare cheques.”

Perhaps it’s not those deemed “professional” beggars who give begging such a bad reputation, but the consistent stream of hysterical and disparaging claims made about beggars in the Melbourne CBD. 

What’s been left unexamined is the assertion that begging is only acceptable when practiced by the most utterly desperate – usually formulated as those who have already lost the roof over their heads.

What about those on their way there? Where do we draw the line, and what does it say about our society when we do?

Only when it comes to begging is rough sleeping the accepted standard of homelessness – government authorities in almost every other instance define homelessness as a much broader phenomenon. This typically includes living in overcrowded dwellings, couch surfing and unsafe accommodation, to name a few.

The University of Melbourne’s Dr James Petty, whose thesis focused on the regulation of criminalisation of homelessness in Melbourne, said government regulatory power and criminalisation was often directed toward the most visible point of homelessness, partly thanks to media coverage.

“I think because of the media attention that gets focused on that visible point of homelessness, and public anxiety about it, the government responds to that instead of the more invisible forms of homelessness,” Dr Petty said. 

The 2015 article from The Age stated that a significant portion of those begging who were not technically homeless were “on a disability payment but had more than 80 per cent of this income taken by their supported accommodation provider for housing and food”. 

Although details are lacking due to an ongoing police investigation, it’s clear that those charged with begging earlier this month are far from privileged.

Lord Mayor Sally Capp told a press conference: “I think it’s clear now that they are part of an organised system but that many of those people are really quite vulnerable themselves and they’ve been pulled into this situation”. 

Shouldn’t that be obvious? 

How the practice of begging in the Melbourne CBD could be lucrative enough to warrant people who, it’s implied, could easily be working legitimate jobs, to sit outside in the Melbourne winter and beg, let alone to compel them to run their own international syndicate, has never been explained. 

And there’s another element of the narrative that’s gone unquestioned.

It’s what hysterical claims of an organised Chinese syndicate raking in money off our streets means contextually within the rise of anti-Chinese racism recently in Australia.

The debate over Chinese influence in Australia is ongoing and heated, and caused 80 academics last year to put their names to an open letter that warned it was creating a “racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy”. 

Also, last year race discrimination commissioner Tim Soutphommasane warned that the debate over Chinese influence could spill over “into general suspicion of Chinese-Australians”.

In this context, stories that frame “professional” Chinese beggars as one of the city’s biggest problems have a corrosive subtext.

Dr Petty said the seemingly peculiar case of the Chinese beggars is likely a logical consequence of globalisation.

“Poverty and homelessness, because of that increased globalisation and mobility, have fewer geographic restrictions and limitations,” he said. “So, it becomes possible for people to be flown to a place to beg.”

It’s not, as some have suggested, that those concerned are not vulnerable or experiencing poverty.

But the operation should give us pause to question the criminalisation of homelessness in the first place, and the City of Melbourne protocols introduced in 2017 that continued down that path. 

“I would say that homelessness was effectively criminalised prior to that. The most explicit example is that begging is criminalised,” Dr Petty said.

“It’s not a behaviour that others take part in, it’s homeless people and really poor people.”

“But the new protocol that was introduced in 2017, I guess, expanded the scope for that criminalisation to occur. It went beyond begging and started to include objects that a person may or may not be responsible for.”

There are also types of legislation that are less explicit, posed in neutral terms like public amenities or move on powers, but are used to police homelessness.

But, according to Dr Petty’s research, it’s actually the criminalisation of homelessness that makes it more visible.

“If you make the city more accommodating to homelessness, not having that really intense policing, the research suggests that lessens the visibility of homelessness.”

“Local governments can’t really decide or implement large-scale interventions, but they can help determine how homelessness is engaged with in their city.”

Dr Petty said the City of Yarra had a better approach to homelessness, recognising the right to be on the streets and engage with public life and with public space, and a high threshold of police intervention.

“In terms of demanding action on homelessness and poverty, there are federal scales and state scales that need to be addressed: increases to public housing, increasing welfare payments above the poverty line, increasing support services, emergency housing.”

“The City of Melbourne can’t really afford the large-scale projects, but it should definitely be demanding that from the state and federal governments.” 

If you are experiencing, or at risk, of homelessness, you can ring the 24-hour hotline for assistance 1800 825 955.

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