You may have seen yesterday’s DomPost story on begging, which trumpeted that the Council was “considering banning begging or fining good samaritans.” This generated much justified outrage, even though deeper into the article it became clearer that this was just one extreme option among a wide range of measures that had been considered after complaints from the public, and one that had been thoroughly rejected by a report that is going before Council. There was also mention of a “kindness can kill” ad campaign to link begging to drug abuse, which understandably horrified a lot of readers.
Luckily, Rob Kelly from Scoop.co.nz pointed us to the full report, including a report commissioned by ThinkPlace and the officers’ recommendations. It’s long, but worth reading if you have the time and can stomach some of the heartbreaking stories of abuse, institutional failure, and relentless vortices of debt that drag people into such desperate situations. Because unlike certain politicians and columnists, this report actually considered the evidence, including the results of various attempts around the world to deal with the issue, and talked not just to retailers and service providers, but also to people who beg. Radical, I know.
For those without the time or spoons, here’s a summary of some key points:
- The report recommends that Council should recognise begging “as a complex and multi-dimensional national issue … a coordinated response is required to address the underlying long-term issues”. Council should “adopt street management as the preferred approach to dealing with the impact of begging. This means tolerating begging as part of the cityscape consistent with viewing begging as primarily a social issue. It does not imply that Council approves of criminal behaviour including intimidatory behaviour and Council would continue as now to advise citizens to contact the police when this is either experienced or witnessed.” I hope they also apply the “intimidatory behaviour” rules to chuggers and certain magicians.
- In recognition that begging’s primary causes are nothing that a single Council can directly control, they also recommend working with Central Government and its agencies, community groups and other Local Authorities. Specifically, Council should “continue supporting the Te Mahana strategy which contributes to the development of a housing first model tackling homelessness and associated health and social issues. Whilst not all people who beg are homeless, the project findings suggest that the chaotic lifestyles of many street homeless people are akin to numbers of people who beg.”
- As today’s DomPost story says, directly employing those who beg might be another approach. “In response to the project findings that lack of positive social engagement or employment opportunities drove begging behaviour consider options that would enable people who are self-motivated to change behaviour. This could be with partners, through funding/philanthropic projects and/or through Council’s own services.”
- The “kindness can kill” idea doesn’t seem to be in the original report from ThinkPlace. It must have been added by Council officers, based on existing campaigns in the UK., though the report doesn’t sound too enthusiastic about it: “Although there is no striking evidence to suggest their success in reducing begging, there may be merit in further examining the UK experience of ‘kindness can kill’ campaigns, and the capacity in New Zealand for linking such initiatives to increased drug treatment provision.”
- As for the idea of fining those who give? Again, not mentioned in the ThinkPlace report, and in the officers’ report: “introducing a by-law that bans citizens from giving to people who beg … [would arguably] minimise the number of financial and other transactions between the public and those who beg. But it might not resonate well with an emphatic [empathetic?] Wellington public, or harness that empathy for community engagement in positive change initiatives.”
How did those last two proposals get into the report, along with other moves to further demonise the already vulnerable, when it looks like no-one who’s actually studied the issue in depth thinks they’d work? Maybe officers felt they had to consider all options, no matter how repugnant or ineffective. However, one might suspect the direct intervention of certain councillors, hungry for tough-talking headline-grabbing sound bites. And even though nothing like that made it into the “Next Actions” part of the humane, evidence-based report, the DomPost (despite a much more sensible and empathetic editorial today) has given those councillors exactly what they wanted.