“Professional beggars” target the city, but police focus on those genuinely experiencing homelessness

Brendan Rees

A small number of “professional beggars” who are not legitimate rough sleepers are targeting the CBD and Southbank, however, authorities say they are gearing their efforts to people in genuine need.

The City of Melbourne and Victoria Police confirmed a small group of people were travelling into the CBD to beg on the streets despite having accommodation, with much of this activity reported to be taking place along Southbank Promenade.

It comes after a Southbank Safety and Security Committee meeting held in June between the City of Melbourne, local police, community members, and stakeholders heard that some beggars “actually have homes” but were operating “as a gang” in the city’s streets, with one understood to be earning up to $1000 a day.

The meeting discussed how generous passers-by would give away a few coins to appease their guilt, but “would be much better” directing that money to a genuine homelessness charity.

Victoria Police Inspector Jamie Templeton said while police had the ability to enforce against begging, “we predominantly focus our efforts on ensuring those genuinely experiencing homelessness are connected to appropriate support services”.

Insp Templeton said uniform police and PSOs were regularly supported by specialist resources from the Mounted Branch, Dog Squad, Public Order Response Team, Water Police and Divisional Response Units “to patrol the city, target crime and provide reassurance to the community about their safety”.

“Anyone who commits criminal or anti-social behaviour that puts the community at risk can expect a swift response from police.”

Professional begging was brought into the spotlight in 2019 after police charged a group of Chinese nationals with begging and possessing property suspected of being the proceeds of crime during a targeted operation, sparking public outrage.

The City of Melbourne said it was aware of the behaviour, but “professional begging” was a matter for Victoria Police.

“Every Melburnian deserves access to safe and secure housing. We’re continuing to work closely with relevant agencies and Victoria Police to support people experiencing homelessness and help connect them with essential services,” a City of Melbourne spokesperson said.

 

In March 2021, CBD News reported legal groups having called on the state government to decriminalise begging after arguing that begging offences caused vulnerable people to be unnecessarily caught within the justice system. However, this was opposed by Victoria Police, who warned it could not regulate “professional beggars” in the CBD without the law.

 

Salvation Army welfare worker Major Brendan Nottle said his team had “definitely not” seen “that sort of organised begging like we saw a few years ago with the Chinese beggars”.

However, he said there was a group of people who had accommodation and were begging in the city as they struggled to make ends meet.

“Our concern is when that group becomes aggressive within their begging, it can be very unsettling for people that are in the city for work or visiting,” he said, but added this group was limited to less than 10 that they were aware of.

“We certainly don’t want people thinking all beggars are in that category.”

Major Nottle said another group he had seen begging in the city was supported by the Supported Residential Services, which provides accommodation and support for Victorians.

“They’ve often got an acquired brain injury or a form of complex disability, and in some cases they are spending up to 87 per cent of their income on accommodation,” he said.

“They’re a group that need our support and care, not our judgement, because in those particular cases they’re living pretty sad lives.”

EastEnders residents’ group president Dr Stan Capp said issues around begging “needs to be addressed in the totality of all the issues that are causing people to be concern about walking in the streets of Melbourne”.

Residents 3000 president Rafael Camillo said a long-term strategy was needed to tackle homelessness including dedicated support for people experiencing hardship, adding “early intervention is the key to avoid these issues”.

The Council to Homeless Persons’ CEO Jenny Smith said current cost-of-living pressures and rental hikes were pushing some people to the brink. •

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