Grant Woodward reports on the search for a solution to an issue that refuses to go away.
“IT’S my birthday tomorrow,” says Peter in a voice so quiet it is in danger of being drowned out by a passing bin truck. “I’ll be 36.” He takes a look around him and shrugs. “I’ll probably spend it here.”
Here is an unremarkable corner of pavement sandwiched between Subway and William Hill. As a steady stream of shoppers and office workers file past under umbrellas, he doesn’t seem to notice the July rain bouncing steadily off his hat.
Across the road is the gleaming new frontage of the £350m Trinity shopping centre. Yet Peter’s presence – and the styrofoam cup gripped pleadingly in his grimy hand – is a jarring reminder that some things haven’t changed.
There are dozens of beggars just like him, all plying their trade on the streets of Leeds city centre.
A recent one-day crackdown to discourage the practice found 29 of them, gravitated mostly towards popular shopping areas and cashpoints. That figure may be down on past numbers, but there are still plenty of complaints.
A year ago, the city council brought in powers to deal with persistent beggars like Peter, allowing it to fast-track repeat offenders through the courts with the aid of injunctions.
However, after a legal challenge brought by two people served with injunctions a judge discharged the ban.
It has left council, police and charities searching for an alternative solution – and struggling to reach a consensus on how to eradicate a centuries-old problem.
“As a charity we supported the injunction policy because it was the last tool in the bag,” explains Chris Field, chief executive of Leeds homeless charity St George’s Crypt.
“Everything had been done to try to help people get off the streets, the final option we had was to plonk an injunction on them. When that was pulled by the courts the beggars started to return and it sent us back to square one.”
The focus has shifted on to those who do the giving; the public’s ready supply of loose change being the reason some individuals are willing to spend their days begging on a pavement.
“Our emphasis now is on making the public aware of what their money is being spent on,” says Field.
“Basically, most of the beggars you see on the street are charlatans and opportunists.
“You may feel guilty walking past them, but the majority of them have a roof over the head and an income to pay for it.
“Put it this way, if someone knocked on your grandmother’s door demanding £2 you would be angry, so why should we allow people to do it on the street?”
Peter, who says on a good day he may collect £20 in his cup, accepts there are those who beg simply as a source of additional income.
However he insists he spends the money on food and places to stay, as he says he is forced to sofa surf his way round friends’ houses because shelters will not allow him to take his dog with him.
“I’ve had an injunction against me and the police keep moving me on,” he says. And yet he keeps coming back.
In a bid to ensure opportunists don’t profit from begging, philanthropic passers-are being urged to use a voucher scheme that swaps money for a meal, shower and offer of long-term support.
This, along with Think Before You Give, which allows the public to text donations, is supported by Councillor Mark Dobson, the council’s executive member for community safety.
“This isn’t about making the city centre look better,” he stresses. “What we have tried to do in the last year, through working with people like St George’s Crypt, is saying we want to tackle the issue of begging – not just push it into the margins.
“There is an issue, it’s fair to say, with people who are choosing begging as a lifestyle and a way to make money.
“The message to the public is if you want to do something good you can buy vouchers or send money using the text number which will then go to those in genuine need.”
However, Helen Beachell from Leeds homeless charity Simon On The Streets has reservations about the value of such a strategy.
As much as the council, police and public would like to find one, she insists there is no quick-fix solution to the presence of beggars on our streets.
“We need to credit the general public with a little more awareness of the issue than this campaign allows,” she says.
“The majority of people who beg do so to fund an addiction, which is often the result of the need to find a coping mechanism to deal with a significant trauma that has gone without the necessary and correct support.
“Most people realise, or at least suspect, where their money is going and it is their choice whether or not to give.
“We need to move away from a culture of thinking that we know what is best for someone.”
Beachell argues that simply meting out punishment for beggars will only make matters worse, resulting in a rise in acquisitional crime such as shoplifting and car thefts.
“What Leeds, and every other city needs is a truly multi-agency approach that recognises that what can, and will, impact on this is a long-term piece of work with a group of people with very complex support needs.”