Why the criminalisation of begging does not help the problem

Last week begging received a lot of media attention so we caught up with Lucy Adams, principal lawyer at Homeless Law, who has done extensive research on the criminalisation of homelessness.

Begging is an offence in Victoria under the Summary Offences Act 1966. Both CHP and Homeless Law would like to see begging decriminalised, yet policy discussions are yet to result in any real change.

“Leaving begging on the books as a crime prevents us from properly considering more effective responses,” Ms Adams said. “It means we keep turning to the justice system to tackle health, housing and social problems.”

The evidence also shows that dealing with begging via the criminal justice system is not effective, and whilst the justice system path is “well worn,” Ms Adams thinks it’s time for approaches to change.

“The evidence shows it’s not working and not dealing with the causes of why people beg. It’s expensive as well as ineffective.”

We don’t have publicly available evidence on the cost of policing begging in Victoria, but a Canadian example showed that the cost of fining people for begging over an 11 year period was almost $1 million. It took over 16,000 hours of police time, but less than $9,000 in the fines were paid. 

Recent crackdowns in the Melbourne CBD have also been resource intensive. For example Operation Minta, which saw a police blitz on begging in the CBD in 2014, saw 30 people arrested and 15 of them represented by Homeless Law at the Magistrates’ Court.

“The focus [of Operation Minta] was on diversion and linking people in with services,” Ms Adams said.

“That is certainly a focus that should be welcomed, but it doesn’t need to be done by the justice system – it should be done on the frontline by services like Street to Home.”

“The clients we represented had been begging passively, sitting on the ground with a hat or a cup. Two had approached people to ask for money, but it wasn’t suggested that any of these people were aggressive.  They were a highly vulnerable group of people (all but one were dealing with a mental illness) and getting caught up in the justice system added to their stress and hardship.

Much of the discussion involves the actions of government and law enforcement. However, the public also has a role to play.

“Public attitudes have a crucial role to play in how society responds to its most struggling members,” Ms Adams said.

“If people are annoyed or uncomfortable with very obvious hardship, that’s going to lead to reactive responses from government and law enforcement.

“There’s a role for government and leaders to play in shaping community awareness around social issues, but the relationship is definitely two way and media also have a role to play in that.

“If the public is supported to understand begging and its causes and if some of the misconceptions about begging are addressed rather than fuelled, this will encourage a better thought out, more effective, less reactionary approach to begging and the hardship that underpins it.”