Key Points:

Councillor Paul Goldsmith has told the nation that he is offended by the sight of two homeless people on a mattress with a ghetto blaster in a puddle of urine at midday on Queen St.

As a result of his personal outrage, he is driving a bylaw change through the community services committee to give the police new powers to move people on.

I think such a punitive move counters the last three years of positive action on homelessness by the council and will serve only to criminalise homeless people and give the police powers which they neither want, need or have the manpower to enforce.

What is the issue for Councillor Goldsmith? You are strolling down Queen St. There is an unkempt man sitting in a doorway with his dog and his possessions in a couple of plastic bags.

There is a placard propped up next to a begging bowl "Spare some change to help me feed my dog." How do you react?

My question is what is so wrong with this that some city councillors feel the need to spend $50,000 to make it an offence? Homeless people on the streets of Auckland is not a new phenomenon.

For as long as there has been a city here there have been rough sleepers. The problem is not huge. The latest count found 91 people sleeping rough within 3km of the Sky Tower - down from the 120 the year before.

So who is pushing for a bylaw to clear the streets? Well it certainly is not Mayor John Banks who tells the story of his own dark period where he slept rough in Auckland. He has consistently voiced only compassionate concern for the homeless.

Nor is it the officers of Auckland City Council who are calling for a law change.

In their most recent report on homelessness, officers write that complaints about homelessness are down this year "compared to this time last year when there were approximately two to eight calls a month for homeless people".

So what is it now? One to four calls a month? When one considers that the council receives on average 3000 phone calls a day, complaints about homeless people could hardly be described as a pressing problem!

It is certainly not the police who are asking for more legislated powers to deal with "streeties".

It is the police who will end up with the job of enforcing the council's new bylaw and I think the police already have enough powers to keep the peace in our public spaces.

Homelessness or begging is not an offence in itself, but the police do have sufficient powers to take action if the person complained about was a persistent nuisance or there was serious intimidation.

There is confusion in the minds of some councillors about the relationship between begging and homelessness.

Not all beggars are homeless and only a few homeless people beg. What we do know is that people who beg are among society's most vulnerable, often trapped in poverty, addiction and deprivation.

Beggars make us feel guilty because they put us among the "haves" while the beggar is patently among the "have-nots". The begging hand creates for each of us a moral dilemma about whether we should give them some of our money or not.

In considering that question, we usually ask ourselves many others including the larger moral question: "Why in a country with a welfare state does he need to beg for money from me - why can't the state provide for him?"

Whether we ignore the request for money or ponder the larger questions, the beggar leaves his or her mark on our psyche. But begging is a social issue and not a crime.

Do we really want beggars arrested or do we want to know that they are accessing all the support to which they are entitled?

So back to my initial question - do Aucklanders really want to have police clear the central business district of beggars and homeless people? The sad fact is there is nowhere for them to be moved on to.

The poor house closed down many years ago. The police would just end up displacing the problem to the suburbs. In the end, the only option that's left is to arrest them. Do we really want our jails filling up with itinerants, as they once were under the Vagrancy Act?

For the last three years, Auckland City Council has been developing an action plan on homelessness.

The plan aims to ensure the council work closely with the agencies dealing with homeless people to address public space issues in a positive, proactive manner. This includes having agreed protocols in place in time for the Rugby World Cup in 2011.

Beggars and homeless people might be a blight on the city's landscape to some people but criminalising them is not the solution.

* Cathy Casey is an Auckland City councillor and former chairwoman of the community development and equity committee.