The City of Perth has proposed an ambitious plan intended to eliminate aggressive street begging by sending people looking for spare change from passers-by to seek help from existing government agencies.
In an effort to resolve the longstanding issue that has confronted pedestrians for decades, the council has indicated it will now will target more some of the city’s more hostile street beggars following a string of complaints from pedestrians and businesses.
Perth’s Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi is proposing the adoption of what she calls a “holistic” approach to reducing the incidence of begging in the city as authorities try to better tackle the myriad of problems that result in people camping out in public places to try and generate an income.
A significant complication that is challenging the City of Perth is that the begging itself is not an illegal activity as is often the case in other capital cities – even if many local businesses, retailers, shoppers, tourists and residents would prefer to keep beggars out of sight and out of mind.
Perth is drawing inspiration from a diversionary program used by the City of Melbourne that involves directing offenders to attend social, welfare and outreach agencies that can assist them in resolving their problems so that they are not forced to beg in public..
Ms Scaffidi said the council wanted to see a more co-ordinated approach to begging, through a multi-faceted combination of regulatory and support initiatives.
“Our primary motivation is not to see beggars fined or otherwise penalised. The council is far more concerned for these people and their well-being,” Ms Scaffidi said.
Another big problem that the City wants to address in this strategy is how to identify the reasons and motivations of beggars, which can include homelessness, addiction of mental illness.
A central part of this problem is the difficulty for the public to differentiate between those who are experiencing genuine hardship and others who use begging as an extra source of income.
Ms Scaffidi said the City of Perth wants to help start getting these people back to a better life “where they do not need to beg on our city streets”.
She keenly pointed to the City of Melbourne’s trial of a diversionary program by the Victoria Police, Salvation Army and the Victorian Magistrates Court as a success because of the benefits that it provided to street beggars.
Under the Victorian program offenders picked up by authorities for begging can opt to attend the Salvation Army and enter a case management program that provides personal counselling, employment and skills training as well as primary health care, legal and housing services.
According to Ms Scaffidi, when the latest diversionary program was conducted in February/March 2014, 15 out of 24 people charged with begging have opted to engage with the Salvation Army prior to their scheduled appearance in court.
She called for similar legislation that reflects the Victorian trial to be implemented in Western Australia “if meaningful action is to be taken to address the problem” because police or council rangers presently have very limited power to act without appropriate legislation.
“If the government introduces legislation here, the City will convene a meeting of relevant agencies to introduce a diversion program to help deal with the issues causing begging,” she said.