Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Beggars need help, not a kicking

Vagrancy has been with us since colonial times but decriminalisation has coincided with a drop in numbers

The Auckland Council says it averages five complaints a month about begging. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Auckland Council says it averages five complaints a month about begging. Photo / Richard Robinson

Five years ago, right-wing Auckland City councillor Paul Goldsmith - now a National list MP - was "gravely concerned with the prevalence of rough sleepers in Auckland City" and called for new laws that allowed police "to do their job - picking people up and moving them somewhere else".

This week, left-wing Auckland Councillor Mike Lee is chairing a bylaw committee contemplating outlawing beggars causing "a nuisance".

The conundrum, both five years ago and now, is, "and then what?" Under the Local Government Act, defiers of city bylaws can be fined up to $20,000. But chances are, a beggar doesn't have the money for a hamburger, let alone a fine. Which leaves the lock-up. But history suggests that doesn't work either.

A quick search of the Paperspast website revealed that in July 1873, Auckland Mayor Philip Philips, presiding in the Police Court, locked James Brown up for three months for being a vagrant with no visible means of support.

"Detective Jeffery deposed that the prisoner was a worthless fellow, loafing about Remuera begging."

Eight months before, Brown had been sentenced to one month's imprisonment with hard labour for begging in Queen St.

Half a century on, and nothing had changed. A letter to the Auckland Star, October 1, 1923: "Sir, I am a visitor from Wellington; I have been here only a week, but during that time I have been stuck up by beggars for money by the score every time I go down town. Why don't the police make these loafers work? I have never seen such a lot of stiffs, bums and beer cadgers as you have in Auckland."

Jump 10 years and the only thing that's changed is the offence. We find Harry Griffiths, 55, pleading guilty to being "an incorrigible rogue in that he placed himself in Queen St for the purpose of begging alms". A repeat offender, he is locked up for three months. Ditto for James Downey, 66, with 105 previous convictions.

These days there are no laws criminalising or regulating begging and what do we find? Begging has all but disappeared. Which might suggest that decriminalising a social problem has actually worked. At present, Auckland Council says it averages just five complaints a month, plus two or three a month in Manukau where there's reportedly a spike in youth panhandling.

The planned bylaw has been prompted by just three organisations. Heart of the City, the multimillion-dollar, rates-funded CBD business lobby group, Smith & Caughey's, the top people's department store, and the Onehunga Business Association.

Wilf Holt of the Auckland City Mission points to a hard core of around just 20 beggars in the CBD. Perhaps an easier solution would be for Smith & Caughey's to offer them a fancy uniform and a job, using their gift of the gab to encourage new customers into the store. And surely Heart of the City could live up to its name.

Instead of recriminalising begging, a better guide is the Homeless Action Plan the old Auckland City Council initiated in 2005 in co-operation with the Committee for Auckland, Auckland District Health Board, Auckland City Mission and Lifewise. Out of this emerged the New Beginnings Court, a specialist court to deal with minor crimes committed by the homeless. It sets up life plans for offenders, helping them break addictions, finding them places to live, helping them back into society. In its first two years the results were impressive.

The beggars are not necessarily homeless, or addicts or criminals. But sitting out on the cold pavement in mid-winter, with a handwritten sign and a cap, is surely a hint to a caring community to offer the person a helping hand, not a kick in the backside.

•In Monday's column I referred to a front-page story in the North Shore Times following North Shore MP Maggie Barry's 2011 election victory which reported, "The morning after National's resounding victory she sent a strong message to Auckland mayor Len Brown, saying there would be a CBD rail link before a second harbour crossing 'over our dead bodies'."

Ms Barry has referred me to a subsequent story in the local paper which says, "Ms Barry says she wants to make it clear she was referring to a rail link from the city to the airport in a North Shore Times story last Tuesday."

The story added that as far as the city rail link tunnel was involved, Ms Barry said that until a business case was made "I am not against it, but I am not for it".

- NZ Herald

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Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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