Since the begging campaign spearheaded by Exeter City Council and the police was launched earlier this month, it has provoked a storm of debate. Here Peter Stephenson, chief executive of Exeter YMCA, says the campaign is wrong to demonise beggers and that in the majority of cases, society has failed to help them.
LET me tell you a bit about Ben.
Ben’s mother was an alcoholic, and throughout his childhood a number men moved in and then left. Ben has vague memories of his father, but he walked out years ago never to be heard from again.
Some of his mum’s boyfriends were OK, but others weren’t. One in particular, Dave, used to yell at Ben frequently and tell him what a waste of space he was. And sometimes, when Dave had been drinking, he would lay into Ben for any small misdemeanour, and would sometimes beat him. His mum didn’t seem to care, but maybe she was just too afraid of Dave to say anything.
That was when Ben started truanting from school, and avoiding going home as much as possible. He would hang out with his mates, and stay at their flats as long as possible to avoid going home and risking an encounter with Dave. He became known as a “difficult child” at secondary school, and his attendance got more and more sporadic. Looking back, Ben knows some of the teachers tried to help, but by that stage he had lost trust with adults.
After leaving school he was stuck at home even more, and confrontations with Dave became even more frequent. So Ben started staying over at friends’ homes overnight, and soon he stopped going home altogether and became a “sofa surfer”, moving from friend to friend until his welcome ran out. He wanted to work, but found it hard to focus on jobhunting because finding shelter each night became all-consuming. In any case, he had no address employers could send job applications to, and even when he occasionally got them he couldn’t fill them in properly because of poor literacy.
As his sofa-surfing options became more limited, he increasingly hung out with people who did drugs. But he promised himself he’d never go that way, sticking to drink instead to blank out the chaos in his head so he could sleep. It was only a matter of time before Ben started to sleep rough. To begin with just occasionally. In time, that was just how life was. So was begging to make ends meet.
You’ve seen Ben, or someone like him, begging in Exeter city centre.
The reality is that many beggars like Ben will use much of the money they get from begging to pay for addictions. The reality is also that many people like Ben will be accommodated thanks to the efforts of various charities and the city council homelessness officers. But often the chaos in their lives will end up losing them their accommodation, due to behaviour or inability to keep housing benefit on track to pay rent. There is often a vicious cycle of repeat homelessness before eventually people can get their lives on track by tackling the root causes of homelessness.
It’s easy to demonise Ben and others like him, and use demeaning language such as that used in the Exeter Against Begging campaign. But frankly Ben is only begging because we as a society have failed him. Not once, not twice, but over and over again.
We failed him when we failed to help with mother overcome domestic violence.
We failed him when we didn’t protect him from Dave and support him adequately at school. We failed him when we didn’t offer him stable accommodation and support when he started sofa-surfing, before his issues grew and became entrenched.
And whilst we put a roof over his head, we didn’t put in enough time and effort to help him overcome the years of abuse, alcohol dependency and inadequate education.
We failed to support him into work, instead simply cutting his benefits when he failed to get to job interviews because of the more pressing need to find shelter, making him even more dependent on begging.
And we are failing the Bens of our city more than ever before as homelessness support and other services that to help them turn their lives around are cut, cut and cut again.
It is no coincidence that begging and homelessness have increased recently.
This is a direct result of cuts to support services over the last few years. Services that could have intervened when Ben was younger.
Services that could have housed Ben much earlier. Services that could have helped Ben address the issues of abuse, educational failure and addiction. Services that could have helped Ben overcome his literacy issues and help him get the work and “normal life” he so desperately would like to have.
The ridiculous thing about this situation is that these services were cut to “save money”. And yet the financial cost in terms of tackling begging, tackling homelessness, tackling the criminality associated with addictions, dealing with the physical and mental health fallout from destructive lifestyles will outstrip any savings made. And that is before considering the massive personal cost to the individuals concerned.
I am quite shocked by the tone used in the Exeter Against Begging Campaign. And extremely disappointed because it is not what I would expect from what is normally an excellent and forward-thinking city council and police force, both of which we enjoy a great partnership with in tackling issues related to youth homelessness.
I can only hope that those overseeing this campaign will have the moral courage to admit they made a mistake.
Not with the campaign itself, which has some merit, but with the degrading language that points the finger at the wrong people. That would not be a climb-down, but simply acknowledging a mistake was made, albeit with good intentions.