Juliette Bains: Solution needed to help with city centre begging problem

Stop handing out cash and help those really in need. PIC: Monkey Business Images
Stop handing out cash and help those really in need. PIC: Monkey Business Images
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YOU’LL see them dotted around the same prominent locations in the city centre.

In fact, if you walk from the University of Leeds down to Boar Lane, chances are you’ll be asked for some spare change five or six times, maybe more.

Whatever your reaction or opinion may be, there’s no denying that there’s currently a problem with begging in Leeds.

I’d say it’s a safe bet that everyone reading this will, at some point, will have been approached by someone begging in the city centre and it really is one of those topics that completely polarises opinion.

On one hand, there are those who sympathise and offer a friendly glance, maybe some money, a conversation or even a sandwich.

Then there are others who assume the worst, rush by and avoid eye contact at all costs.

When I first came to Leeds as a student, I found myself falling into the latter category.

It was an issue I didn’t really understand and, like many, didn’t want to think about.

More recently though, I got a chance to educate myself on what is actually going on in the city’s streets, as I joined a team from West Yorkshire Police as they went on an early morning ‘sweep’ of the city centre.

Working alongside staff from homeless charity St George’s Crypt, we spoke to rough sleepers about how they wound up on the streets.

It was 6am on a frosty morning when we pulled up in the police van at a well-known spot in the heart of the city – next to a string of posh offices.

A few men crawled out bleary-eyed from under a cardboard sheet and shared their heart-wrenching stories of drug addiction, the death of a loved one and redundancy.

The coppers and charity workers stood next to them, chatting and offering out coffee, knew most of them by name.

Right then and there, I saw for myself that there was help to be had – if, indeed, they wanted to be helped.

This particular group turned down the charity’s offer of support and chose to stick together on the streets.

Their stories stayed with me, and it was saddening to see that in this day and age, with all the charities and organisations working hard to make sure it doesn’t have to happen, that there are still many, like these, who slip through the cracks.

But the most unsettling thing I learned that day is that Leeds is being targeted by a big group of fake beggars – who can earn up to £600 a week. A hard core of chancers, funding their lifestyles by abusing the empathy of others really is the lowest of the low.

To tackle these persistent fake beggars, Leeds City Council recently announced it would be the first in the country to bring in a radical new law, which could see them face a hefty fine or even prison.

Despite the law being brought in a couple of months ago, I have to say on a recent night out I didn’t see much of a reduction in the number of people negotiating the drunken crowds to ask for a handout.

Whilst it’s good that steps are being taken, Leeds’s begging issue seems worse than ever.

Regardless of what your view is, with charities like the Crypt and Simon on the Streets, it’s unacceptable that in 2014 we have so many people begging in Leeds.

If we truly want to push our credentials as a modern, cosmopolitan and cultural city, is it really the image we want to present to visitors?

If that cold morning in Leeds taught me one thing, it’s that, if you really want to help, donate to charities or buy food rather than handing over money.

Stopping giving beggars – real or fake – cold hard cash is the only way to tackle this problem. Then the scrounging imposters will have their free ride cut off in the first place, and hard-working charities will be able to sift out those who are really in need.

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