Tommy Wilson: City's streeties deserve a slot

By Tommy Wilson

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Inclusion rather than bylaws is the best way to deal with street-dwellers, Tommy Wilson says.
Inclusion rather than bylaws is the best way to deal with street-dwellers, Tommy Wilson says.

Bob Dylan once sang "when you ain't got nothing you ain't got nothing to lose" and when it comes to beggars - who in this country are called "streeties" by their own - asking for a handout when a hand-up has walked on by, that is about all they have left.

We see streeties almost every day if we work in town and you know they see you long before you see them - and as soon as you make eye contact you are nervously shuffling in your pockets for change.

Or you change your direction and pretend to be distracted by something or someone across the other side of the road.

But it's too late by then and you both end up losers. You with guilt from not having a coin for him, and I say him because it is very seldom a her, and the streetie also because to him you are just another cold-hearted face saying to him 'get a job, get a life or get lost'.

And lost is what he already is.

Should begging be by-lawed is the question being asked up and down the land of the lost and lonely crowd, and some aspiring new councillors see the streeties as more opportunistic than empathetic when it comes to conjuring up votes.

Some of our streeties are familiar faces who have eked out a living that has lasted a lot longer than some of the potential politicians who want them gone, and some are victims of the same old circumstances - poverty, prison, drugs, drink and dysfunctional family lives, to name a few things on their CV of hardship.

However, some are born actors and performers with much more of a busker than beggar pedigree, sharing their soul-filled songs and million-dollar smiles - and who have just about as many missing teeth as their much-loved ukulele does strings.

Giving it all for a koha to an audience who, according to Dylan, should be at least as happy as they are, given they have nothing and nothing to lose.

We all know the reasons streeties beg but how well do we know who they truly are, what their whakapapa is and how we can help, besides the odd gold coin sometimes given to make us feel better about what we have than it makes them feel about what they do not have.

People who beg are often among society's most vulnerable, trapped in poverty, addiction and deprivation. But not all.

Many choose to live this lifestyle and we very seldom see them come in and ask for help at social service agencies like Te Tuinga.

This could well be because they are not from here, with no whanau or family to support them, or they survive on their talents.

Given many sing for their supper with an old stringless ukulele, the lid of an old tin pot or bang hard-out on a beer box, perhaps we should encourage more busking, in the fashion of the streeties across the road from us at Lees on Chadwick.

So often I arrive at work to the sweet sounds of a brilliant busker, singing the blues and sharing his story of living life with nothing much more than a song and a million-dollar smile.

Not many, if any, of our streeties are a danger to the sidewalkers who pass them by or stop to give a gold coin, and police already have the powers to deal with beggars who intimidate or are aggressive, so why create a bylaw?

Perhaps it is not the law that needs changing but our attitude towards streeties.

To say criminalising vulnerable people in our city would solve the problem by passing a bylaw against begging is akin to saying banning spraycans on shop shelves will stop tagging.

It takes a change of mindset to understand both the problem and its solution. With tagging the answer is easy. Just promote more street art as the Rotorua and Tauranga City Councils have been doing and the tagging fades away.

The same can be said with streeties.

Giving them somewhere to belong and a stage to showcase their talents is a good start.

Perhaps the stigma of shuffling for long-lost coins and crossing roads to avoid eye contact could be solved by placing a coin or two in "kindness meters", in the form of old parking meters, erected and administered by councils which would use the donations to buy kai and clothing for streeties.

Now that would be a beggars' banquet well worth supporting and streets ahead of any bylaw.


- Tommy Wilson is a Tauranga author and writer.

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