Are those dishing out soup making Norwich’s homeless issue worse?

Homeless man on a street in Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt

Homeless man on a street in Norfolk. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Archant

Norwich has a problem.

It's a problem that cannot be missed if you have been into the city centre during the last few months.

The problem is homelessness and street begging.

Each day as I walk to work through the city, I see men swaddled in sleeping bags in shop doorways. On the walk home, I am on average approached or spoken to by four people asking me for 'change for a cup of tea' or a variation on the theme.

I never give them any money: a fact that will horrify people who regularly give in to their guilt or show their compassion by digging into their pockets to find some coins.

I have no idea how my money would be spent, nor whether by giving I would feed an addiction or feed a hungry stomach.

I also have no idea whether the beggar is genuinely homeless and dispossessed or whether they are taking me for a fool.

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There have been suggestions that some of the people involved in begging have travelled to Norwich because we are perceived as a bit of a soft touch – a good source of easy money.

MORE: Your views on whether handing out soup is making Norwich's homeless issue better or worse

There are even suggestions that some people get up in the morning in their flat in a Norfolk town, catch the bus into the city, spend the day begging, then go home. Apparently it's easier money than the employed alternative.

I find it hard to believe – but maybe that makes me one of the soft touches.

Problems require a solution. I don't have one, though, and neither do those with far more expertise than I.

It is, however, important that a solution is found soon – chiefly for the sake of the genuine homeless people whose desolation is so public.

Something also needs to be done for the sake of Norwich, however cynical that view may seem.

Whether people like it or not, rough sleeping and begging are bad for Norwich: for its reputation; for its wellbeing; for its people.

Rough sleepers and beggars give visitors the impression that our city is in decline, when it is a place that is on the up, economically, socially and culturally.

They put people off certain areas. Some people are genuinely intimidated by being approached by a beggar asking for money.

The situation makes a visit to the city an uneasy experience: I wonder how many people have voted with their feet and stayed away?

There are growing numbers of groups and individuals who are responding to the issue of street sleeping and begging with compassion – handing out soup, clothes, drinks and care.

But – and this is where I expect to unleash a tidal wave of righteous anger – I fear they are compounding, not easing, the problem.

Gentleman's Walk and Hay Hill are pretty scary places to be on some evenings as dozens of people gather for their handouts.

I've seen scuffles, loud arguments and lots of drunkenness. It cannot be good for the soul of the city and the trade of the theatres and restaurants.

Most of all though, is it really good for the people who are being 'helped'?

We have charities which specialise in helping the homeless – including Shelter.

The charities are experts – we are not. They know the difference between genuine need and a chancer – we do not.

I'd sooner give my money to a charity that will use it wisely than give it to a human being with human frailties, who may use it to hasten their decline.

MORE: Your views on whether handing out soup is making Norwich's homeless issue better or worse