'We are just a sticking plaster' - police crack down on begging can't solve the problem alone
PUBLISHED: 12:00 09 March 2018 | UPDATED: 09:37 13 March 2018
Police have cracked down on begging in Norwich in the last year - but admit they are "just a sticking plaster".
For the last 18 months, police in the city centre have been operating a three-strike policy for “aggressive” beggars.
It is part of Operation Wormington, launched in response to an increase in anti-social behaviour and street drinking.
There is an important distinction to make. Not all aggressive beggars are homeless, and not all homeless are beggars.
Officers say they found many beggars had accommodation and one would regularly cash £200 a day in loose change.
“This is a community we deal with every day,” Sergeant Mark Shepherd said. “A lot of Operation Wormington beggars have accommodation.
“The fact is giving the appearance they are homeless is committing a fraud. The genuine homeless then feel they are all tarred with the same brush.”
In 2017 73 begging warnings were handed out in Norwich, and officers began using community protection notices in July last year which restrict people’s behaviour.
Since then 14 have been given out for alcohol, three for anti-social behaviour, one for graffiti, and one for begging.
A total of 21 criminal behaviour orders are in place in the city as part of Op Wormington and last year officers dealt with 163 incidents of begging in the city centre.
But police know without better support for drug addiction and mental health services, the number of people on the streets will not be reduced.
Two known beggars have already died during the lifetime of Operation Wormington, as overdoses are common.
“Unless you can address the reason they are doing it in the first place it becomes a vicious circle you are never going to break,” said Sgt Shepherd.
“It is really complex. Policing has always been used to deal with issues in society. With rough sleeping we do not know the answer, but we do need to address the underlying issues. We can go through the courts system to get them to engage but not everyone wants to engage.
“We are just a sticking plaster. Criminalising someone should not be the way to get help.”
But police said the “sad reality” is that Norwich also has professional beggars, who make life harder for those who sleep rough every day.
When people are first caught begging in the city centre, police said they try to bring them into a support network.
Beggars are told it is illegal and directed to agencies who can help. The second time they are issued guidance and a begging warning, and on the third occasion police will begin criminal sanctions.
“Homelessness is not an offence,” said Superintendent Dave Marshall. “We do not punish people who are homeless for being homeless.”
But he added there are core group of 20 people who will aggressively beg in the city.
“That is approaching people on foot demanding cash and being quite threatening in they way they do that,” he said.
“It is about being proportionate and giving people in the city who are genuinely homeless the opportunity to engage with local services.
“We have evidence of individuals who are genuinely homeless who will not use the facilities put on by volunteers because they find it intimidating, with anti-social behaviour and people making threats.”
Sgt Shepherd added a small cluster of people were sidelining those who are in greatest need.
One example police cite is a man who calls himself The Poet, who recites poems to people before demanding money, sometimes insisting people go to a cash point.
Another beggar in Norwich who has been issued a criminal behaviour order has been known to cash change of up to £200 a day, added Supt Marshall.
“When people say you wouldn’t sit on the street through choice I would question that,” he said. “A lot of our genuine homeless people do not beg.”
One solution, proposed in the city council’s new rough sleeping strategy, is to bring all provision for rough sleepers indoors so they can access support agencies in a safe environment.
“More people queueing for food is a mark of increasing failure,” Supt Marshall added. “If someone is dependent on handouts and is not getting any support they will always be dependent.
“In the short term you can do that but we have to support the long-term survival of these people.
“The city council want to find premises inside where people can get a hot meal and showers, socialise and get support and help.”