The Auckland local government race isn’t the only one where begging is becoming a top issue. Here’s what Labour candidate for Wellington City mayor Justin Lester had to say about it on Facebook this week.
On Friday the National Business Review asked me and all other mayoral candidates whether we’d support a ban on begging in Wellington’s CBD. The suggestion was it would be a sure-fire route to the mayoral chains.
My response was a firm no.
Begging is a social issue with many causes. It is not a crime.
Let’s make one thing very clear from the outset, begging is not a lifestyle choice. Suffering a mental illness is not a lifestyle choice. Being raped or sexually abused is not a lifestyle choice, nor is being beaten up by your partner.
It would be great if no-one had to beg. It would be great if no-one was poor. The sad fact is that this is not the case. Beggars are often Wellington’s most vulnerable people and there are valid reasons why they’re on the streets. It would be great if every single Wellingtonian was educated, in work, and had a safe, warm home to live in, but we know that will not always be the case.
I’ve never had to beg, far from it. But I have seen what it’s like to be poor. My mother did her best to raise three children alone. She would have preferred a life with a caring husband and financial security for her family. But when my dad left and refused to pay child support, she was forced on to a benefit with three kids under five. It was hard for her to re-enter the workforce because after years doing it tough by herself she was broken, depressed and lacking confidence. Her situation did not come about by choice, it was imposed upon her by external forces. As a father, I see that now.
Take a situation like that and add a cocktail of domestic violence, drugs and alcohol. Remove the community and government support from around the individual and we begin to see why begging is prevalent.
So, how many people are begging on our streets? Council’s study shows it’s about 12-13 people at a given time. Those are not big numbers, but they are highly visible.
What can we do about it? We’re already doing a lot. We work closely with agencies like Work and Income, Police, Corrections, social service providers like the Night Shelter, Womens Housing Trust, DCM, Salvation Army and the Soup Kitchen. It requires funding and support, from both central and local government, but also from community and business. Those are the two biggest hurdles and almost always fall short. Funding is always hard to come by.
It also requires leadership. Just last month the Night Shelter told us they would be forced to close in April 2016 without immediate funding assistance. That would have meant 40 of Wellington’s most vulnerable men being forced to sleep rough. It would have inevitably led to some of them begging. I was proud to work with Councillor Paul Eagle and the Mayor to ensure short-term funding was provided. More support was confirmed in future years to reshape the Shelter’s service provision to help improve these men’s lives. How would a ban have improved these men’s lives if they were forced on the street, with no home or accommodation and a few weeks’ notice?
No-one wants to be poor, no-one’s first preference is to have to seek charity to survive. Sometimes things happen in life that we can’t control.
Making criminals out of beggars by introducing a bylaw that bans it does not address the root cause. It hauls them into prison and exacerbates the problem. Intimidating or threatening behaviour by beggars is already against the law and needs to be reported. Our local host ambassadors and Police address this behaviour. Call Police or WCC if you are experiencing it.
I recognise Wellingtonians are concerned about this issue. I’m concerned about this issue. We need to understand the problem, provide appropriate funding at all levels and try to address the root causes. Wellington is a generous, compassionate city, let’s not lose that by turning our head and not facing up to the issue in front of us.