Article in Sunday Herald, July 30 2006

by Paul Dalgarno, author and journalist


Like graffiti, like litter, begging is exercising civic consciences in Aberdeen once again. Rugged up and wanting on the oil capital's granite streets, the figure is common enough: hands outstretched for a few coins, cardboard signs propped up against badly shod feet. Faces might change but the story remains the same: nameless and shameless, they wait sullenly in arcade entrances, like slot machines to salve a city's guilt.

Last week, the Scottish Executive's deputy justice minister Hugh Henry promised to reconsider moves by both Edinburgh and Aberdeen councils to introduce controversial by-laws, already rejected last January, to ban beggars from the city streets. Backing the proposal, Aberdeen councillor Neil Fletcher said the ban would specifically target "professional beggars" a phrase which conjures images of briefcases rather than sodden, cigarette-burned sleeping bags and those just begging ‘for the sake of begging’.

A police investigation in 2003 which established many have choose this profession to fund drug habits, with earnings of up to GBP14,500 a year, provided further grist for the mill, although Fletcher points out that the proposed law would incorporate a "package of measures to ensure that people who need help get access to the necessary services".

For Bob Steadman, an ex-beggar who has lived on the streets intermittently since childhood, it's a lifestyle that has changed.

"I tend to see the lighter side of begging, mainly because there can be a sort of street party feel to it as well, " he says. "There are times when everyone shares what little they have. Everyone knows each other and it can be a real laugh. There's a kind of camaraderie, or at least I used to see it like that, but heroin very rapidly changes things."

An artist who got his break through the Big Issue Foundation, Steadman now trains and works at Aberdeen's Peacock Visual Arts gallery. After fighting a drink problem to get to where he is now, he knows he's an exception. For his work to illustrate Get A F***ing Job, a recent social art book presenting interviews with Aberdeen's various beggars, he plunged into his own past to work with some of those still on the streets.

"A lot of the beggars I knew originally are dead through drugs, " he says. "I've never been a heroin addict, but if you end up homeless it's very easy to become one. You're very isolated, very far away from the mainstream. With heroin it's a chicken and egg situation in terms of what comes first.

People become homeless for lots of different reasons, because of rent arrears or family break-ups, and then anything can happen. Not everyone understands that but some people have a lot of sympathy."

Implicit in the proposed ban is the belief that beggars should do something else for their money, such as getting a job and paying taxes. Conceived in response to the proposed by-law, the book was published in the aftermath of the Executive's original decision to block the move, and its creator Eva Merz is incensed by a possible U- turn. "There are lots of complaints about begging but the council is providing no real solutions, " she says. "They have mentioned the idea of setting up charity boxes for people to contribute money to, which will then be redistributed, but how is that going to work? Even if you ban begging, you can't ban the problems behind it. It's maybe better that we see those people, and the state they're in, to remind ourselves that the problems are still out there."

Holed up at a bus shelter in Aberdeen's Union Street, John, 32, fits neatly into the stereotype the ban would target. A heroin addict since the age of 17, he has a home to go to but doesn't. With eyes not quite ready to give up the flicker of life and gaunt, sunken cheeks, he shows the signs of a long-term junkie. In him, the fears of everyone worried that the money they give will disappear into swollen veins seem justified. But criminalising his life on the street, he says, will do little to change its root causes.

"I've never broken into houses. You hear of folk mugging old pensioners for money. I'd never do that." As he talks a passer-by throws an empty cigarette packet in his direction and shouts something about his need for crack and smack, a charge he freely admits. "It's an illness, basically. I'm not fit enough to go back to work because of what I do to myself, I couldn't manage physically." The £98 fortnightly giro he receives goes no way towards meeting his needs. "I make between £40 and £60 begging from three o'clock till around one in the morning, " he says. "That, and what my mate makes, goes largely towards heroin. An eighth of a gram costs about £40 and that will usually do us for the whole night. Maybe a tenner of what we get goes towards food but it's rubbish food, just a sweetie here and there."

Tales of nights spent in derelict buildings or fights breaking out in car parks and abandoned stairwells are commonplace. And then there are the stories, repeated the length of Union Street, of the doctor who began begging when he lost everything after accidentally placing his baby into a boiling hot bath, of the friend who got Hepatitis C on the first hit from a shared needle.

Whether a ban will go some way towards turning things around is debatable. Begging is already outlawed in England but, as any visitor to London will know, the threat of fines or imprisonment has done little to stem the problem. What the ban may do, however, is quell a growing disquiet among residents.

"It's about time they did something, " says Dave White. "I've been accosted at least 20 times over the last couple of weeks." Despite claims by many of the city's beggars that they are generally not looked down upon, the belief that they're somehow pulling a fast one refuses to go away. "It's all very organised, " says Joy Wood. "They go out in taxis to get to the point where they're going to beg, they change over pitches, they make a lot of money. But then with a ban, who's going to fund it? How are you going to stop them moving on and doing it somewhere else?"

While estimates put the number of regular beggars in Aberdeen's city centre at 25, the number of homeless is much higher. With the closure of the Victoria House hostel and the Oasis night shelter, many complain that there are now too few options to get in from the cold or to avoid the prospect of begging.

Those hostels that do exist are often full, or have rules around drug taking, which leaves many unable to find a way forward. Initiatives such as The Big Issue, which aims to give those on the bottom rung the chance to start climbing, also have strict rules around working under the influence. Throw in mental health issues and protracted illness and the spiral continues downwards.

Darren, who has spent much of the last eight months begging on Aberdeen's Belmont Street, has his own grievances. "What annoys me is the fact you'll see 20 or 30 beggars here at the weekend but then the rest of the week only four or five. A lot of people are cashing in because they think they can make good money at it. You can't tell them apart but the difference is you'll see me and another few guys out in rain, snow, no matter what, because we're genuinely homeless."

After neglecting his council rent in favour of a drug habit, Darren is now trying to make things happen. If he pays his arrears for the next 13 weeks he will be back on the council waiting list. Meanwhile, he's determined to stay clean. "So far I'm managing but, because I'm homeless, I get people coming up asking if I want to buy drugs." As if on cue, two men approach and try to bring him in on a drugs deal, an offer he quickly refuses. "You see what I mean, " he shrugs. "I've just got to keep myself going, play things by ear and see what happens."

Similar enough thoughts, one imagines, to the councillors in favour of a ban. For those more ambivalent towards begging, who throw coins on occasion whether through charity or superstition, the issue is less clear-cut. But for the ban's detractors, there's little ambiguity. Concerned for those who really have slipped through the cracks, they say the move would further exclude the excluded, sweeping those at the sharp end of society out of sight and out of mind. Steadman, who still can't talk about his former life without solemnly touching wood, remains diplomatically in the middle of the debate, while defending those left without choices.

"I think there should be a freedom to beg, " he says. "A lot of people with regular jobs and marriages, who are managing to cope with that, take their lifestyle almost for granted. But there are people, lots of people, who are never going to have that kind of life, and will never make things happen."