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22 August 2014

Melbourne police seizing begging bowls, say social workers


Begging is illegal in Victoria and police say beggars are charged but deny confiscating money

Outreach workers say Melbourne police are cracking down on homeless people begging for money and are increasingly seizing their begging cups.

The chair of not-for-profit outreach organisation Youth Projects, Melanie Raymond, said because begging was illegal in Victoria, there had long been cases of police taking cups filled with small change from homeless people.

“But recently, particularly in the last six months, we’ve become much more aware of this happening, with the last case reported to us two weeks ago,” Raymond said.

“Some of our outreach workers have witnessed it happening"

“The person is usually just passively sitting on a blanket in an alcove with a homemade sign, but are clearly begging, and it means they come to the attention of the police who have a job to do, and take the cups as evidence of begging.”

There had been a 40% rise in the number of people sleeping rough in the city in the past year alone, she said. This was driven by domestic violence, unemployment, and eviction from rental properties after being unable to make payments, she said.

“Begging is a last resort, and most people who beg are really ashamed of it,” she said.

“We now have hundreds of clients with fines hanging over their heads for begging, and they often need to keep begging to pay their fine.

“It’s a prime example of a law that’s ineffective, it’s not stopping begging and it’s not deterring begging.”

A Victorian police spokeswoman said city police regularly ran operations targeting professional and aggressive beggars, in cooperation with the City of Melbourne.

But she denied they were fined or had their money taken away.

“They are charged and bailed to court where they are usually required to undergo a Salvation Army program to help them get back on their feet,” she said. “Those who are in need of food, shelter and health care are referred to care providers. Police do not confiscate money beggars have collected.”

A man who has been begging in Melbourne for a decade, who wanted only to be known as Peter, said he had never had his money taken away.

“I have heard from someone else that it happened to them though,” he said.

But police were not his primary concern.

“It’s the people who walk past me each day who harass me the most,” he said, begging on Collins St on Thursday. “Everyone has something to say about you.”

Raymond said an increase in complaints against homeless people could be partly responsible for the police crackdown.

“It’s a more visible issue now,” she said. “Unfortunately it makes some people uncomfortable.”

Council to Homeless Persons policy and communications manager, Sarah Toohey, said 23,000 people were homeless across Victoria on any given night.

“Of those, around 1,100 were counted as sleeping rough or in improvised dwellings in the latest census, so the rest are sleeping in crisis accommodation, staying with friends or family, or in temporary lodging,” she said.

Police had a number of different ways of managing beggars, she said, and one of their methods was confiscation of money.

“Sometimes they will tell beggars they will be back in an hour and to move before then,” she said, “sometimes they will make them put the money in a church charity box, and sometimes they confiscate the money altogether.

“They have a range of strategies for something that shouldn’t even be a criminal offence.”