‘Truth about aggressive city centre begging revealed’: an open letter to Newcastle council with Amy Greer Murphy

We were interested to read your recent Cabinet update story ‘revealing’ the ‘truth about aggressive city centre begging’ (Cabinet update November 2015). The story included quotes that suggested begging on the streets or being homeless was a potentially lucrative ‘lifestyle choice’ that people had rationally and deliberately chosen. For example, Cllr. Nick Kemp stated that:

‘We don’t have a homelessness problem in Newcastle. The council and voluntary sector have hundreds of beds which means there’s really no need to be on the street’.

Superintendent Bruce Storey went on to say:

People assume that the person who is begging is using the money for hot food, a drink and a roof over their heads – this just isn’t the case. People who we’ve identified as problem beggars in the city, and it tends to be the same few, have home addresses and are coming into the city to make easy cash. Those that genuinely do need help and support are being given it by the city council and other agencies and we want those people to know that there is no need to beg and that the help is there for them

We would like to take this opportunity to share a story which will hopefully counteract this perspective, and help to illuminate the wider context.

Amy had an encounter with a pregnant woman sitting on Northumberland Street a few weeks ago. Her name is Sarah, and, at 24 weeks pregnant we are sure that sitting on a cold street in winter isn’t a choice she is willingly making. But the paths our lives take us on are often difficult, we don’t always do things that are in our best interests, and it’s sometimes hard to justify the choices we make.

Sarah told Amy that the only housing option the council could provide her with was temporary hostel accommodation, which was, in her words, full of drug users. There could be any number of reasons why she doesn’t want to stay in that environment, and we doubt those on the council would choose that living arrangement either, we know we wouldn’t. We could choose to believe she is lying of course, but that isn’t helpful or practical.

Unfortunately, there was no room for nuance or perspective in your story, or the coverage it received on the front pages of the Evening Chronicle (http://www.chroniclelive.co.uk/news/north-east-news/more-96-per-cent-beggars-10482765). The stigmatising depiction of vulnerable and disadvantaged people as being criminal, manipulative and deviant is extremely disappointing.

Newcastle City Council has been very quick to highlight the detrimental impact of government cuts on the services it provides. It is unfortunate that the same council does not recognise that austerity measures can affect individuals, many of whom will rely on those services that have been cut. It is one thing to see Conservative politicians portraying poor people as ‘scroungers’ and ‘fraudsters’ to justify cuts and ‘reforms’ to the welfare state. It is quite another thing to hear Labour politicians echoing and even extending this rhetoric to an even more marginalised group.

The argument that beds are readily available and support available for those that need it belies the difficult reality of accessing appropriate services. A single conversation with a young pregnant mother showed a very different perspective, from someone who wanted to access services, but couldn’t. Or perhaps her story, and indeed her ‘pregnancy’ were just part of an elaborate organised crime scam?

If the city council really wanted to ‘inform’ residents ‘about what is really going on’, as Cllr. Kemp suggested, they could instead have highlighted the complex and often difficult choices people must make, often against their own better judgement. In our own experiences, we have never been led to believe that people we see begging, living rough or in temporary accommodation were there as a result of their ‘lifestyle choices’.

We believe that individual lives and choices are embedded within a broader cultural and structural framework. The council would be better served to highlight the impact of austerity cuts on individuals as well as on local council budgets, social housing, disability and job seeker payments, and community support services, than emphasise ‘individualised’ lifestyle ‘choices’ which only further stigmatise people living in difficult circumstances. We believe your ‘No Need to Beg’ campaign is misguided, misinformed, and a huge shame.

***The above is an open letter to Newcastle City Council from myself and a colleague, Amy Greer Murphy. We were both surprised by the stance adopted by the city council in a recent update to residents. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be a localised response  as other councils are also adopting similar approaches, with Leeds proposing a ‘three strikes and you’re out’ campaign, Manchester having banned homeless people from using the toilets in their library and Newport proposing banning rough sleepers altogether.***