It may be a reflection of an unusually long and warm summer, now past, that the numbers of homeless on Auckland's streets appears to have increased lately. Wellington has seen an increase, too, prompting its city council to consider a ban. Sensibly, it has not adopted one. A ban would take the form of a bylaw requiring enforcement by the police, and police are too busy to be arresting people for doing no more than sitting on the footpath with an inoffensive sign or some other means of silent begging.
Their presence may be offensive to most people in a country that spends three-quarters of its taxation on health, education and social welfare, though the presence of beggars are seen by some as an indictment of those services. Beggars are on the streets of cities the world over, rich and poor. In fact, the only places where they are rarely seen are those rules by authoritarian regimes. In developed economies they are a problem of visibility rather than number these days. They are few enough to suggest their misfortune may have myriad individual explanations rather than a social one. Addictions and psychological problems are apparent.
Some of those sleeping rough in Auckland are said to be going beyond begging, to the point of harassing people and even entering a cafe to demand money and cigarettes from mainly Chinese and Korean diners. That is behaviour police must nip in the bud. Harassment that is short of trespass, though, is harder to stop. It can be intimidating to come across a group of beggars in the city centre at night but no law ought to stop them congregating.
Life on the streets must be lonely most of the time.
The homeless are few enough to be known individually to the staff of night shelters and other agencies that try to help them by steering them in the direction of the benefits and supports available. But if they are determined to live rough and roam free, as some occassionally tell reporters who publicise their plight, there is a limit to what can be done for them.
Social agencies do not believe anybody is homeless of their own volition, and they dismiss as an urban myth the idea that beggars are raking in impressive amounts. Street living, they say, is as desperate and miserable as it appears, and we ought to do what we can to alleviate it.
Street dwellers make generosity very easy, perhaps too easy. It is better not to give coins that might merely feed an addiction to alcohol or other drugs. But these people are normally begging near shops, where it is nearly as easy to buy them real food, such as fruit or a juice. Some cities are doing better than Auckland at tapping the charity of their citizens.
In Melbourne, some inner city lunch bars invite customers to buy an extra sandwich or bowl of soup to be given to the destitute. Private charity and corporate sponsorship provides mobile soup kitchens and even a bathroom on wheels where the homeless can get a shower, a shave and haircut. That is the sort of practical service that at the right moment might help turn a life around.
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