Elderly people bullied into handing over medication, customers accosted at ATMs, fights at front doors: Greerton retailers have brought their horror stories about begging gangs to Tauranga's council.
Six retailers spoke to a meeting of the community and culture committee this afternoon, pleading for help to stop the intimidation of customers and staff, and to return the village to the vibrant, safe place it was not so long ago.
They said the council's proposed begging bylaw could not come soon enough. While councillors agreed, they also pointed the finger at central Government for under-resourcing police and social services.
Dan Hughes of Copyman has witnessed shouting, vulgar swearing, physical fights and what he believed were drug deals and prostitution from the "gang" of people that often gathered near his shop.
"Customers come in visibly upset and frightened by these people, as well as feeling upset for the people on the side of the road. There are mixed emotions."
All other retailers who spoke said they were too afraid of "retribution" to give their full names for publication.
A pharmacy owner said elderly customers came in to replace "lost" tablets only to later admit having been "too scared to say no" when someone on the street demanded they hand them over.
"Some are too ashamed to admit it, so they are going without their tablets.
"We have customers leaving on crutches who get hassled for their pain meds."
Employees regularly felt intimidated, and three had quit in recent months after years of low staff turnover, she said.
A clothing shop owner said he was considering moving his business as customers and staff felt so threatened by the "gang of beggars" operating in Greerton.
"I now have a hockey stick out the back of my shop. I never thought I would have to do that."
He had called the police several times, but the culprits had "an uncanny way of disappearing when the police are on their way" and wondered if they had police scanners.
A bank representative said customers were "accosted" at ATMs by people asking for money and a couple had bank cards stolen near the branch.
"Staff are being followed in the evenings and asked for money when we return to our cars."
Councillor Terry Molloy praised the retailers for having the courage to address the council even though they were nervous about doing further damage to their businesses.
"If we're going to fix the problem we first have to recognise it."
Councillor Larry Brown said council staff drafting the bylaw to ban begging were struggling with legal issues.
"Apparently it may be a breach of the Human Rights Act to ban begging altogether."
He said staff were investigating whether begging could be banned within a certain distance of shop doors.
Councillor Catherine Stewart said she believed retailers had been "let down" by central Government failing to resource police and social services sufficiently.
"I don't see why ratepayers should have to be all things to all people."
A Greerton Village Mainstreet spokeswoman said retailers had raised the issue with Labour list MP Jan Tinetti, whose office is in Greerton, and had scheduled a meeting with Tauranga MP Simon Bridges for next week.
Tinetti said many places in New Zealand were experiencing similar problems and the Government was working to do more to address the root causes of begging and homelessness.
She said she would also do whatever she could to help the council get the bylaw through.
"I like what the council is doing with its wraparound services, but there has got to be some teeth with that."
Council's actions on begging issues
- Four new CCTV cameras in Greerton
- Employed two security guards in Greerton patrolling 10am to 5.30pm, Mon to Sat
- Gathering data about numbers and incidents on the street
- Introduced the Your Help May Harm campaign to discourage giving to beggars
- One staff member working full time on issues relating to begging and homelessness
- Talking to people on the street to get their story and refer them to help
- Brought forward a bylaw review to look at adding anti-begging legislation.
-Source: Tauranga City Council
Police: Greerton not unique
Police area commander Inspector Clifford Paxton said the issue was not unique to Greerton and police received calls about related issues from all over the Western Bay.
"Once we get involved what we're finding is that what was initially reported is not necessarily what we're faced with. We need to be careful about how we label people."
It was also difficult for police to prove intent to, for example, intimidate.
Of 36 related calls for service to Greerton so far this year, in only 20 per cent was a criminal offence alleged. The rest were all "social-related matters" such as a breach of the peace or a report of suspicious behaviour.