Beggar Off!

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By Mary McConville

It has been reported that some police have been confiscating the takings of beggars in the city. Their rationale is that these few coins are the ‘proceeds of crime’.

In Victoria and some of the other Australian states it is illegal to ‘beg for alms’. Beggars can be fined more than $100 or be imprisoned for a maximum of 12 months. Fining people who are desperate for money sounds stupid. One man, nicknamed ‘Chaos’,  said that “…you’d  have to go to court for begging and get a $100 fine, then I’d have to go begging to pay that back.”

Youth Projects report that there have been eight cases of confiscation in the last year. Other reports say that there have been 200 or more people charged in the last year. Ms Melanie Raymond, who chairs Youth Projects’ clinic for the homeless said that there has been a 40 percent increase in homelessness in the last year which was contributing to an increase in begging.

Police on the beat were asked about their enforcement of the anti-begging laws. They replied that they do enforce these laws and can confiscate the cash but that  they do not do so. The spokeswoman for the Victorian Police Sergeant Sharon Darcy said that she did not know of any cash being seized. On the other hand, homeless people and welfare workers report that there has been some confiscations. Phillip Standi, a worker in Little Collins St, said that a homeless man who begs nearby had $20 taken from him.

The police do say that they run regular operations that target “aggressive and professional  beggars”  and that some of the people charged are directed to welfare workers through a program that is run by the council, the police and the  Salvation Army.

These cases lead me to some philosophical musing. Just what is begging? Is it asking for something without offering any goods or services in return? Is it begging only if it is for yourself? Are charity collectors beggars?  What about “chuggers” – charity muggers?

Buskers can be seen as a borderline case. They are supplying a service – entertainment, but they are not in a contractual relationship with their audience. Audience members may, if they wish, walk by, walk on or even walk through the show. Councils recognise the presence and utility of buskers. They are registered, licensed and recognised as workers “wandering minstrels, a thing of  rags and tatters” and maybe even as a tourist attraction.

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