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UK treatment of beggars has a Roma of bigotry

December 3, 2014
Detail from "Spanish Romani people" (1853) by Yevgraf Sorokin.

Detail from “Spanish Romani people” (1853) by Yevgraf Sorokin.

Whether you can really arrest the growth of homelessness by arresting homeless people remains to be seen. But like some jurisdictions in the United States and Canada, some European countries are reacting to increasing homelessness by trying to treat it as a crime.

But there’s a genuine question why European authorities would try to tackle homelessness this way. Any willingness to resort to criminal prosecution of street people in Europe runs the risk of looking more like persecution; on both economic and ethnic grounds.

Though few Europeans want to admit it, when they talk of full-time street beggars, aka panhandlers, they tend to think of the Roma people.

Arresting beggars is a bit of a cop out

Under the headline “Arresting beggars doesn’t help anyoneGuardian newspaper columnist Suzanne Moore explains how some communities in the UK are increasingly resorting to the expedient of arresting beggars to clean the streets of their unsightly presence.

UK authorities are using the dusty provisions of a 190-year-old anti-vagrancy law.

There has been a dramatic 70 percent rise in arrests of homeless beggars this year across England and Wales under the 1824 Vagrancy Act.

In the prosperous Thames Valley region, near London, in southeast England, arrests under the 1824 law have increased from 20 to 92, a 360 percent jump in 12 months.

And in the county of Merseyside in northwest England, which includes the city of Liverpool, arrests of beggars in the same period rose from 60 t0 291, an increase of 385 percent. On the eastern border of Merseyside, in Greater Manchester, the Guardian reports that arrests have doubled.

This is attributed to Manchester city centre, where local businesses have been encouraged to report homelessness and begging and police community support officers are trained to issue court summons to offending street people.

People convicted under the 1824 Vagrancy Act face a fine of £1,000 (CAN$1,604).

Moore’s piece speaks for the outrage of her audience — the squirming outrage of both conscience and affluence:

“As we load up for Christmas, it really would be nicer not to encounter these hopeless, zoned-out specimens. They are the cities’ human graffiti, reminding us that inequality is not some abstract notion. But is it really the job of the police to arrest them, fine them and call this ‘help’?”

She echos the public’s expectations (if not impatience) that these unfortunate people should be off the streets accessing the services designed to help them but, she asks rhetorically, in the wake of government cuts, do the required rehab and drying-out clinics, or even basic mental healthcare, exist any more?

The self-inflicted wound of poverty

Suzanne Moore ticks off some of the barriers that can stand in the way of people getting themselves off the street: poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues and criminal convictions.

But as Moore admits, people much prefer to see the whole complicated syndrome of cause and effect simply as a self-inflicted condition.

Making people personally responsible for their poverty neatly absolves society and government policies of any blame and justifies a hard-hearted willingness to leave people to their chosen fate.

The next logical step is criminalization, which inherently implies people are making a personal choice that they are responsible for.

And society is within its rights to use the law to discourage bad behaviour.

One problem with criminalization though, is how easily it can be misdirected away from discouraging anti-social behaviour and towards discriminating against undesirable groups.

Government can’t create jobs, just criminals

All the aforementioned barriers to getting off the street: poverty, substance abuse, mental health issues and criminal convictions, are likewise barriers to getting and keeping legitimate employment.

Beyond panhandling, how else can a person support themselves while living on on the street in the UK?

England scrapped its bottle refund system 20 years ago so surviving by collecting returnable beverage containers, like I do here in Vancouver, B.C., isn’t an option.

And two years ago it became illegal in England and Wales to pay cash for scrap metal; only cheques and direct deposit are allowed.

Even dumpster diving can qualify as theft in England and Wales. Back in 2008 a woman was arrested and charged under the Theft Act of 1968 for going into a dumpster and fishing out four plastic garden chairs destined for a landfill.

Clearly, an effort is being made to keep British homeless people from being able to legally support themselves.

EU membership has its drawbacks

What the United Kingdom is doing to criminalize homelessness should be seen in the context of The UK’s membership in the European Union and the way that membership restricts the UK from shutting out poor EU citizens.

The EU is a bunch of sovereign nations trying to act as one big nation for economic purposes: a United States of Europe to specifically rival the United States of America.

Naturally member states have to give up a degree of sovereignty for the EU to have a chance of working.

It is illegal for EU member states to close their borders to citizens of other EU member states; Union residents have the right to enter any member state for up to three months with a valid passport or identity card.

So prosperous EU countries can’t legally turn away citizens from the poorest EU countries.

France and Germany seem to be handling their influx of poor Europeans with good grace — The United Kingdom not so much.

professional beggars and other euphemisms

At no point in her article does Suzanne Moore refer to either professional beggars or the Roma people, who are seen as a price of EU membership that many in the UK no longer want to pay.

She only says the arrests, veiled as a reaction to aggressive and intimidating beggars, are really an attempt to cover up the growing number of homeless people.

She never says where many of the homeless people are coming from.

And the closest she comes to describing professional beggars is by describing the practice as “entrepreneurial, with its swapping of pitches and techniques”.

Her unwillingness to state the obvious — that the British public have become increasingly exercised over so-called professional Roma beggars — does a disservice to many international readers but so far as her audience in the UK and Europe is concerned, she doesn’t have to be explicit; they know.

The very first comment on her piece by readers is all about “organised gangs of Romany beggars” And there follows a peppering of comments about “Romas”, “Romanian beggars”, “organised begging”, ” imported, aggressive professional beggars” and “business beggars” and I read one comment about “Roma pickpockets” before I lost interest.

A story in the Telegraph newspaper from last year detailed how several Roma kicked out of the UK in the summer were back by the fall. Notably the story begins with “Foreign beggars”, progresses to “Romanian beggars” and settles on”career beggars”all before the first paragraph ends.

“Merrie Olde England” is certainly suffering through an invasion of poor euphamisms if nothing else.

To me Suzanne Moore’s failure to mention the controversy in England over Roma beggars is a “negative fact”,  just like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story “Silver Blaze”. The deliberate exclusion speaks volumes.

Whether the British public are concerned and angry about Roma beggars is one thing but saying the British authorities are beginning to crack down on street begging in an attempt to restrict the legitimate mobility of EU citizens or that they are in any way targeting a specific ethnic group would ring human rights alarm bells all over the European Union.

Better to let that sleeping dog lie.

Fear and loathing of the Roma beggars the imagination

Once widely referred to as Gypsies, the Roma or Romany people (also including the Sinti) have been the typecast as the ne’er-do-well thieving vagabonds of Europe for centuries, though, as their name suggests, they are geographically associated with Romania.

Absolutely every kind of low level crime you can imagine is being associated with the Roma people in Europe.

Shifty Roma are supposed to be always fleeing the poverty of Romania to prey on the richer parts of the European Union. They engage in all manner of criminal activity: stealing, picking pockets, dealing drugs, prostitution — you name it — up to and including panhandling. They sleep rough on the streets and live in makeshift camps. And when the police break up the squats, the authorities can’t pay them enough to go back to where they came from.

Two countries do not a trend make

Hungary made headlines in 2012 when they first tried to criminalize homelessness; By 2013 they had succeeded in placing a ban on both dumpster diving and sleeping outdoors near certain public places.

And now England is joining suit; using an antique vagrancy law in to clear beggars off the streets and tightening rules around scrap metal recycling to make  it all but impossible for homeless people to support themselves collecting scrap metal.

Fortunately the actions of a few countries do not yet constitute a trend towards criminalizing homelessness in Europe.

The “aboriginal” in homelessness is also silent

The piece in the Guardian reminds me that homelessness closer to home has its own “dog that doesn’t bark”.

I’m referring to the way Canadians can talk and write about the problem of homelessness in Canada without ever mentioning aboriginal people — mental illness and drug addiction get far more ink.

Everyone suspects that aboriginal men and women make up a very high percentage of Canada’s homeless population (I think it’s at least 50 percent) but after all these years, aside from local counts here and there, no one actually knows and I’m not entirely convinced they want to.

If it was clear that anywhere near half of all Canadian homeless people were aboriginal, Canadian society would have to face the fact that homelessness was largely due to institutionalized racism.

As it is, Canadian society already deserves the majority of the blame for Aboriginal homelessness.

We can hardly lay the old personal responsibility guilt trip on homeless aboriginal people. Aboriginals are the one group in Canadian society that has been historically and systematically denied the right of free choice.

According to the Indian Act, “Status Indians” are still legally wards of the Canadian  government, which is a lot like saying they are like children.

Which possibly explains why people prefer them to be seen and not heard about — like that dog I mentioned.

  1. Oilybird permalink

    I think you have to understand that we do things differently there. Yes we do insist on cheque payment for scrap metal but when statues and cars and manhole covers go missing there is good reason. Stealing from bins is done for the same reason. Romany are entitled to the same benefits as Brits but will also beg. Yes I know they are persecuted in Eastern Europe but there are plenty of illiterate beggars in the UK already who need help. I have also seen how illegal immigrants and the homeless are treated across Europe and I would say that France, Greece, Italy, Spain and a few others are far worse in the way they treat people. The Police in the UK are tree hugging social workers compared to French police who are racist, military, and corrupt. I also know how foreign born black and Turkish people are treated in Germany by Germans. they are not racist to your face but you do not exist as a person and they will not talk to you unless they have to. In the UK they are racist but will talk to you and will often then get to know you as a person.

    I am not convinced that making life easy for beggars many of whom have drug problems does anyone any good. I have met many addicts who only really start to get themselves sorted out when they get to rock bottom. I dislike the lack of social support provided to homeless people in my country but I notice it is no better here. Personally I think that life on the street should not be made easy but getting off the street and staying off the street and in gainful employment should be. This should be a range of services including but not limited to access to somewhere they can safely store possessions, access to methods to get personal Identity papers sorted out, access to safe casual employment, access to shower facilities and washing facilities, access to mental health and addiction services, access to health services, finally and most importantly a way to regain there self respect and feel whole as people and a home of their own in a decent area away from the drugs and chaos but also where they feel part of the community.

    • I really appreciate your first-hand perspective on England. I don’t agree that society should purposely make homelessness harsh. But I certainly agree wholeheartedly that bridging services should be in place so that homeless people can get the ID they need and have access to showers and laundry services so they can hold legitimate employment and get a bank account, etc.

      I believe in hand-ups not handouts. I continue to think the only sustainable route off the street begins with a job and that society should be obliged to assist homeless people to make that happen and then back them up when it comes time to convincing a landlord to take a chance on them.

    • Slowcrow permalink

      Welcome Oilybird! Well said!

  2. Oilybird permalink

    Maybe I didn’t put my point of view across significantly. I think living on the street is tough and I wouldn’t want to have to do it. I think society should be tough on the causes of homelessness, e.g. Violent home lives, poverty, addiction, mental health issues, but not tough on the homeless. At present Vancouver seems to have hampered police enforcement by not allowing violent drug dealers to be prosecuted and pimps but they are not willing to give the resources to get people off the street. The need to not enforce cannabis laws is resulting in an easy ride for crack and other drugs from my perspective. At the moment we have a very wish washy system which benefits no one. There is no support to get the homeless out of poverty, there is no support for social housing,there is no support for mental health services and work. There is support for the kind of salve that makes people feel better that does not do very much at solving the problem such as soup kitchens and handing out socks and letting people sell calendars and allowing people a free ride as far as begging is concerned. Police are not social workers and should work with other agencies to help the homeless of the street. This could be as simple as arresting people for begging or drug possession or pick pocketing or selling stolen goods but then using this as an opportunity to get people the help they need to get their lives sorted out. After all under the law people need to be identified to get prosecuted and often people who are homeless have lost vital documents such as birth certificates etc. The police can’t do this alone, social workers have to work with them alongside other agencies to give people the chance to get back on their feet. Criminal justice should not be just about punishment but also rehabilitation and restoration. As far as I see it right now Vancouver looks after BC and Canada’s homeless population badly whilst everyone else turns their back on them. You do not get people back on their feet by listening to their tale of woe, patting them on the hand, giving them a cup of tea and a biscuit and sending them back out on the street but you do get people back on their feet by challenging their behaviour that is not acceptable and helping them fix the stuff they need to fix.

    I agree with you Stanley, it should be hand ups not hand outs. Society is obligated to help even its least able After all both Canada and the UK have agreed to uphold the UN charter on human rights. As for aboriginal homeless people, they don’t seem to get looked after by their own bands or even Canada. They are the people who most need social assistance and also the means to not have to need social assistance. The last 60 years of aboriginal assistance seems to have widely varied between neglect and outright racism as well as making people unable to look after themselves. I see similar problems in the UK in communities which have suffered 40 years of unemployment and people are no longer able to look after themselves. Drugs are the most evil thing any community can encounter. Communities need to be strong enough to look after themselves. At present the only community homeless people have that will look after them is the community they live with on the street.
    Finally Stanley, thank you for writing your blog. It has helped to challenge my views on how I think about homelessness and also helped introduce me to Vancouver which I am just getting to know. Keep up the writing you are articulate and educated and it is a joy to read your blog and look at your pictures. Your writing helps give a voice to the homeless. It helps people no longer see the poor as a mass of unwashed hordes but as individuals who have the right to be respected And listened to. There seems to be a trend in society to label and isolate sectors of the community and treat them all as stereotypes (Chavs, Ned’s, red necks, whatever tasteless epithets that exist in Canada. but we forget the individual at our peril.

  3. Slowcrow permalink

    Well, first you tar us with the same brush and that we need more ‘agencies’. Then close speaking of individuals (?????). Try googling ‘living in your car’. With the amount of older, really NICE, mobile homes, that have no where to be set up, there really is something evil going on. Poverty IS a growth industry. Get off peoples backs, and some will be able to crawl out of their difficulties. Too many studies, too many committees, too many myths and presumptions. Lots of houseless persons are supporting themselves and living within their meager means. THAT used to be considered normal, now I just find it admirable. Showers, laundry, maybe community kitchen and storage. It is NOT complicated. Does not have to be a big sweeping effort, just pick away at the obvious solutions but, by god, can we not just get on with it. And of course you are spot on regarding this blog and its creator.

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