General Question

RareDenver's avatar

Does jailing a homeless man for begging solve anything?

Asked by RareDenver (13141points) February 19th, 2011

A homeless man in Belfast has been jailed because, what a surprise, he couldn’t afford to pay the £80 fine imposed on him for begging.

News story

What would you have done in the Judges position?

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52 Answers

Neizvestnaya's avatar

I’d had assigned him some kind of community service in lieu of the fine and to not have it on his record as well as directing him to an outreach facility, if possible.

tranquilsea's avatar

This type of law is ridiculous. It is insane that some districts are criminalizing poverty. But I guess they think it is easier than trying to figure out just why so many people are homeless and actually doing something about it.

WasCy's avatar

Sentence him to Death. The jails will be overcrowded before long, and the cost of the groceries alone will be staggering. (Since you already have the NHS, additional health care costs won’t be a major consideration, will they?)

Is Transportation still an option? Or have the Australians wised up to that scheme and shut the door?

Seriously, how does a case like this end up in court? I can understand communities passing laws against vagrancy; that’s a problem that they have to deal with. But if he’s homeless and penniless, how do they expect him to pay a fine in the first place?

Can they just put him outside the city walls, with orders to the guards not to let him back in? Oh, wait… this isn’t the Middle Ages? Darn.

Not many options, are there? You can decide not to enforce the law, and invite all of the other local homeless to beg with impunity, or you can put the guy in jail where he won’t be committing the crime – and he will be fed and cared for during the term of his confinement. After he’s out, he can make the choice to do the same thing, with the same result, or not.

It doesn’t seem like a stupid decision to me.

gasman's avatar

(1) It gets him off the street so he can’t annoy or accost innocent passers-by.
(2) The punishment serves to deter further panhandling—though it didn’t seem to have worked for him in particular.
(3) He gets food, shelter, safety, and a decent bed to sleep in for the night.
(4) It sobers him up if he’s an alcoholic or drug addict.

On the other hand, the punishment exceeds the crime. It strikes me as unusually harsh and ultimately an undue burden on the taxpayer-supported government justice system. What do you think is fair?

RareDenver's avatar

I’m not sure what I would have done. Possibly enforced a curfew order on him along with a placement at a local shelter.

Judi's avatar

It provides him a bed and meals. Otherwise, it is silly and crazy.

dreamer31's avatar

He may have possibly done this on purpose anyway, I know if I was homeless and it was cold outside I dont know that it was cold and hungry ,I would not stop begging, if the threat was jail. I would think of jail as a warm place with food.
It baffles me and makes me sad that being poor is commiting a crime.

Mikewlf337's avatar

Doesn’t solve anything but you must understand that begging others for money is form of harrassment. Nobody wants homeless person to approach them for money. I feel sorry for them because they are down trodden and usually the victims of a greedy society that has done nothing to provide jobs and seems to do everything they can to take them away. I would rather starve to death than beg for money or food. There is no easy fix for this problem. It seems cold hearted to punish him for begging but if this was legal people who don’t need to beg will be begging.

Russell_D_SpacePoet's avatar

@gasman It doesn’t sober him up. If he is an alcoholic a stint in jail is just a delay till his next drink. Jail does not cure addiction or being penniless.

dreamer31's avatar

I must add that if I were rich, I have always said, I would not be rich for long. And if I owned a restaraunt, NO food would ever go to waste. There are many countries that have absolutely NO reason for anyone to go hungry/homeless. screw a bunch of starving to death for pride
@Russel SpacePoet I agree

Coloma's avatar

And just HOW does a beggar pay a fine without the freedom to beg? Uh…. :-/

It is a sad situation, one that plagues every society and always has.

The fact is that for every well adjusted homeless person that is truly a victim of dire circumstance, chains of events, there are 20 that are seriously mentally unwell.

I always look with compassion upon the homeless, and feel humbled that except for the grace of god, go I.

People are afraid to really get close to those that mirror their deepest fears.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

It makes as much sense as killing for peace. @Coloma Well said.

Seek's avatar

Same thing is going on in my area all the time. Our homeless population is higher than ever before, and the cities are passing anti-panhandling laws everywhere, without adding any resources to aid the destitute. For that matter, our new governor wants to cut Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other aid to the poverty-stricken masses, and has refused money from the Fed to put toward a huge infrastructure project that would create thousands of permanent jobs in the state! gods bless America, right?

You cannot simply close your eyes and wish the poor people away. It doesn’t work like that, folks.

BarnacleBill's avatar

We seem to have an ever-growing population of adults who are incapable of managing their own lives. In the mid to late 1800’s, orphanages sprung up across the country to handle children of immigrant families who, after arriving in the US, one or both of the parents promptly died, leaving either a surviving parent who was unable to care for the children, or no parent to care for the children and no relatives.

We have an ever-growing population of mentally ill and substance addicted adults who have an ever-shrinking safety net. And we have a growing population of young people who are in situations where self-reliance is difficult to attain because of economic conditions, disenfranchisement with society, or a paralysis about how to make the leap to self-reliance.

~Perhaps we should do what England did in the 1700 and 1800’s when they sentenced debtors and petty thieves to exile in the American colonies and Australia? Should we just ship people to other countries? Or perhaps buy them all plane tickets to Hawaii, where you can be homeless for $3 a day?

Coloma's avatar

I observed in my travels in asia last year very few homeless.

Taipei city is larger than San francisco and I saw ONE homeless/bag lady in 2 weeks of traveling into every nook and cranny of this mega progressive country.

Whats their secret?

Seek's avatar


National health care and an abundance of American factories in which to work?

BarnacleBill's avatar

@Coloma, in other countries, families take care of their own. Grandparents, orphaned children, unmarried sisters/aunts, etc. live with their families. There are lots of marginal areas, but I suspect that as an American tourist, you were directed away from them. My daughter was in Asia with limited funds, and saw some very scary places before she called home for financial assistance.

Michael_Huntington's avatar

Yeah, let that guy go to jail. He should be punished for harassing indifferent citizens with his annoying pleas of help such as “I have no home” and “I haven’t ate in days”! Besides, he’ll be safe and well fed! Never mind the shanking and the raping and the piss poor food~

peridot's avatar

How sad is it that jail is probably a step UP for that man…

That said, when are lawmakers going to get off the frigging “punishment” train? Are they there to dispense actual justice, or is it more about getting paid to obliquely satisfy their spanking fetishes? :p

Charging people for not having money… wow. Just. Fucking. Wow. And it is SO common. (Late fees, overdraft fees, etc. etc.) It’s only one example of laws/ regulations being more about punishing than rehabilitating.

lifeflame's avatar

1. There is professional begging, and there is begging out of dire straits. The former should be discouraged; the latter needs social service help, not jail.

2. Putting someone who is merely poor in jail is to introduce him to criminal company, and thereby making it more likely for him to be involved in criminal activity later (e.g., find a source of drugs, etc.)

3. Re: Asian countries – I can’t speak for all, especially since it’s a frigging continent – but here in Hong Kong we have fewer homeless people because (a) there is government support – enough to scrape by; and (b) there tends to be better family ties. It’s pretty unfilial, not to mention embarrassing, to have your father/uncle/brother, etc beg; so the family generally helps out. Despite the fact that extended family ties are slackening, you’ll have to be pretty cut off from your family / have the whole family in dire poverty for this to happen.

peridot's avatar

@lifeflame Y’know, that’s something I’ve wondered for a long time. Have asked this of several people, and would like to ask of you now: How can you tell the difference between someone who really needs help and a professional beggar? (Aside from seeing the same person “begging” year after year.)

RareDenver's avatar

@peridot there is a guy that begs near my office, his brand new North Face Jacket (about £180) and the fact I always see him talking on his mobile phone lead me to think he is not all that destitute.

Summum's avatar

There was a guy here in Utah that kept trying to get arrested so he could eat and have some shelter. He finally started a brush fire that went out of control and destroyed a few homes. He was sent to prison for it. Something wrong with a society that one needs to be jailed to eat a good meal.

peridot's avatar

@RareDenver Got it. How about those who are not destitute, but dress the part? Some professional bums leave their cell phones and North Face jackets at home.

Mikewlf337's avatar

Some of you act like it is so easy to solve this problem.

Jaxk's avatar

I’m not sure what a reasonable solution for this would be. Not too long ago I had a guy in front of my store that was accosting every customer for money. Frankly it was hurting my business. I asked him what he needed and he told me he was hungry. I went in the store and got him a sandwich and a cup of coffee. Gave it to him and told him I couldn’t allow him to continue begging in front of the store. He ate the sandwich and went across the parking lot and continued begging. Eventually he came back in the store and bought a bottle of cheap gin. I haven’t seen him since. I suspect it wasn’t hunger that prompted the begging. I have a few other similar stories but the results are quite similar. The idea that a little begging doesn’t hurt anyone is simply untrue. It hurts everyone.

WasCy's avatar

If you think about it, @RareDenver, the judge’s hands are pretty much tied.

“What is a crime” is decided by the legislature / parliament, as well as “what should the punishment (range) be”.

It’s unlikely that the judge called the police to file a complaint (or if it was, then he surely should have recused himself from the criminal proceedings).

“Whether to arrest the man or not” is not up to the judge, nor is “whether to charge him, and what charge to lodge against him”.

The judge is just the final player in the charade, and he has to preside over a court where the prosecutor brings the accused before him after the arrest and booking by the police. He could have dismissed the charge, I suppose, but then the newspaper story would have been about a judge condoning a clear infraction of perfectly clear law.

You might ask yourself, though, why legislators chose to impose an £80 fine… for the crime of begging.

I agree with @Jaxk that the “infraction”, since it’s legislated as such, is not without some harm or potential harm to individuals and to businesses such as his. (But it’s a pretty benign harm if it can be bought off with a sandwich and a cup of coffee, isn’t it? The police and other regulators themselves are often more ‘harm’ than that.)

But if it’s going to be a crime, then perhaps there should be a different way to make amends.

bea2345's avatar

We don’t know the circumstances, do we? It may have been just in order to get him off the street or some such thing, But the story is a little odd. If he could pay the fine, he should charged with being a public nuisance, not just with begging. But if he is really destitute, what’s the point?

bkcunningham's avatar

Three sentences. That is all the information we have. A BBC story that is three sentences long. Is anyone else even a little bit curious about “the rest of the story?”

Does anyone have any information about the begging rings or problems with agressive begging, obstructing vehicles, begging near ATMs, cafes, or businesses in Ireland? Any information about the new begging laws just enacted? Or Ireland’s growing debt or economic problems and joblessness?

RareDenver's avatar

@bkcunningham Belfast is in Northern Ireland which is part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, not part of the country that is known as the Republic of Ireland or Éire

bkcunningham's avatar

So where were the new begging laws enacted @RareDenver ?

RareDenver's avatar

@bkcunningham I don’t think any new begging laws were enacted anywhere

bkcunningham's avatar

@RareDenver here it is I’d heard somethign about this. Forgive my ignorance with Northern Ireland and Ireland. I should know better than that.

RareDenver's avatar

@bkcunningham yeah that news article is about the Republic of Ireland, not about the UK

bkcunningham's avatar

So what is really behind this story @RareDenver ? I mean what has brought about a three sentence story about begging in Belfast? Is it in light of the new Republic of Ireland law? Is it considered unconstitutional to prevent someone from begging in the UK?

RareDenver's avatar

@bkcunningham I have no idea what made the BBC reporters ‘report’ it but once they did it came to my attention and I posed my question here.

bkcunningham's avatar

@RareDenver no, I just wondered if there was something else someone could add that is going on that wasn’t being presented in the three sentences. Something behind the scenes if you know what I mean. I didn’t mean for my skepticism of today’s news reporters to reflect on you, or on you posting the story in any way, shape or form. I thought it was interesting and was just curious to know more. I’d assume that the judge’s sentence was unusal if it was reported on and perhaps begging is becoming a problem.

PhiNotPi's avatar

Something is very wrong with the way that society tries to solve the problem of poverty. Have no governments seen what is going on? Even if they have, they must not be acting on it. There are people without homes, without even the knowledge of where they will get the money to feed themselves, that have to resort to begging, and society, instead of helping feed and house these people and get them back on their feet, decides that the beggers are overly annoying, and sends them to jail. Even worse, they justify this by saying that this will help feed and clothe them, which it does. Once they get out of jail, now what? Where are they now? Nowhere. Once jail ends, the person is in the same situation, if not worse, than where they where before.

The truely sad part is that jail can be seen as a step up by the very poor. They begin to commit crimes in order to go to jail, with innocent people being victims. When a person starts a bush fire, and burns down people’s homes, just so they can get in jail. The punishment of jail does little to nothing in this case. If the person goes to jail, it rewards the person for their crimes (because the government is providing stuff that it should have already provided), it wastes taxpayer money that could help the person, and there are still those people who lost their homes in the fire which need help. If the only way for a person to survive is to commit a crime and make someone else suffer, then that person will commit a crime, and people will suffer. If we just helped out the person in the first place, this whole problem could be prevented from ever happening.

Now lastly, is going to jail for begging so commonplace, so unremarkible, that the author of the article considered this story to not be worthy of more than three sentences? Are people saying “well three sentences pretty much wraps up the entire article, there’s nothing much to say about it.” When a person talks about this sort of stuff, they need to realize that treating the begging problem like this isn’t actually treating the begging problem. People need to stop saying “this is just the way people deal with begging” and start asking “Does this actually cure the problem?”


YARNLADY's avatar

They quit doing that in our area because the taxpayers didn’t want to give the beggars free room and board. We have over a thousand people who live on the streets here.

SmashTheState's avatar

Panhandling is a legal activity here in Kanada. There were once laws against it, just as it was against the law to have less than $5 in your pocket (the crime was “vagrancy” and the assumption was if you did not have money, your intention must be to “live from the avails of crime”). When Kanada signed its constitution in 1981, all these anti-poverty laws were struck down as unconstitutional.

Unfortunately, like many of these comments on Fluther express, anti-poor discrimination didn’t stop because of words on paper. The beating, criminalization, intimidation, torture, harassment, humiliation, and occasional murder of the poor continues apace. That’s why people like me exist.

I am spokesperson for an organization which advocates and organizes panhandlers. We are a direct action organization which works within and outside of the law. We bring the poor together, and we use whatever means are required to defend outselves. A local cop had been beating the shit out of street youth for years; we brought the homeless together and occupied the lobby of the police station, refusing to leave, and read our demands through a megaphone, surrounded by hundreds of furious cops. The cop was promoted to detective to get him off the street as a result.

The answer to your question is, no, imprisoning someone for panhandling is useless, stupid, ignorant, offensive to any sane person, and sadistic. It happens on a regular basis, however, because hatred of the poor has become the norm. In 1934, Louis-Ferdinand Celine explained the reason for hatred of the poor and worship of the rich: “True, we have got into the habit of admiring colossal bandits, whose opulence is revered by the entire world, yet whose existence, once we stop to examine it, proves to be one long crime repeated ad infinitum, but those same bandits are heaped with glory, honors, and power, their crimes are hallowed by the law of the land, whereas, as far back in history as the eye can see—and history, as you know, is my business—everything conspires to show that a venial theft, especially of inglorious foodstuffs, such as bread crusts, ham, or cheese, unfailingly subjects its perpetrator to irreparable opprobium, the automatic dishonor, and inexpiable shame, and this for two reasons, first because the perpetrator of such an offense is usually poor, which in itself connotes basic unworthiness, and secondly because his act implies, as it were, a tacit reproach to the community.”

You will spend $240 a day (the cost to incarcerate someone in Kanada) in order to jail someone for begging — because the $580 a month given to a person on welfare is insufficient to pay rent, let alone eat or clothe oneself. There is little point in even discussing the subject with people who are so insane, so completely out of touch with reality, and so consumed by sadistic glee in the misforture of others. I could easily write a 20,000 word essay here on the subject, but frankly it’s a waste of my time. Experience has shown me that my time is far better spent organizing to protect ourselves by whatever means are most effective — by hook or by crook — than flapping my gums at poor-hating sociopaths and the apathetic throngs who support them.

dreamer31's avatar

@SmashTheState I love your answer and wish I could give it more than 1 lurve!

Carol's avatar

The judge absolutely did the right and humane thing. The man will definitely get dinner.

lifeflame's avatar

To be honest, it’s pretty tough to tell unless you are around the neighborhood a lot.
So when I travel, I basically refuse to give any money to beggars. (You hear all sorts of horror stories of professional beggars in mainland China amputating babies they have found to evoke pity from passerbys….) If I am going to give something, it’ll be food; or better still, to a charity for street children or something.

SmashTheState's avatar

@lifeflame I can tell you from my own intimate daily contact with large numbers of panhandlers, that the majority do it because they have a disability[1], are trapped on welfare[2] as a result, and simply don’t have enough money to survive[3].

[1] By disability, I mean either physical disability, mental illness, or substance addiction. These three things can’t really be separated. Nearly every panhandlers I have ever met or known suffers from post-trauma. Sometimes the trauma occurs before they end up on the street, and sometimes after. More usually, they have post-trauma before, and their subsequent experiences on the street (often including rape, violence, and brutal, sadistic oppression by police and private security) make the damage much, much worse. Once on the street, a substance addiction is almost a guarantee[4]. This is why current thinking is that homelessness must be prevented rather than cured. Our city, for example, now operates a “rent bank” where people can request up to three months worth of rent arears once every two years; the money this costs the city is a pittance beside the astronomical cost of maintaining a person’s homelessness. The longer a person stays on the street, the harder and more costly it becomes to get them off the street[5].

[2] We have a disability program here, which, while it’s still well under minimum wage, which is itself well under the poverty line, is still almost double what people receive on welfare. The problem is that the government makes it as difficult as possible to get a disability pension. The unofficial policy is that they reject all applicants, forcing them to go through a lengthy and complicated appeal process to discourage as many as possible. Since people with serious mental illnesses on the street lack the legal, medical, and social supports necessary to follow through on an appeal process which can take as long as two years, they end up trapped on the street for years at a time, collecting welfare (or less).

[3] To give you some idea of the scales involved, welfare pays about $580 a month, disability pays about $1000 a month, and minimum wage pays about $1400 a month. A one-bedroom apartment in Toronto will run you an average of about $1100. A room in a run-down transient hotel or rooming house will cost you anywhere from $450–600. If you are on the street and sleeping at a homeless shelter, the city is already paying the shelter $45 per day to feed and shelter you, which means you don’t even receive welfare; instead, you’re given about $120 per month for “personal needs.” All of this means that panhandling is a virtual necessity if a person has no other resources. The idea that “they’ll spend it all on drugs and alcohol” is at best incorrect class prejudice, and at worst a deliberate, sadistic lie designed to inflict harm on the weakest and most oppressed people in our entire society.

[4] In order to survive on the street, particularly as a youth, you need to belong to what’s called a “street family.” This is an affinity group of individuals who watch each other’s backs, engage in mutual aid, and provide emotional and material support to each other. If a single person in this street family has a substance addiction, all will have eventually have it. It’s part of the culture. And since life on the street is harsh, brutal, and degrading (largely as a result of the kind of class-hatred seen in some of the responses given to this question), substance addiction occurs as a kind of unconscious self-medication. Even animals have an instinct for self-medication when they are sick and/or traumatized. Humans under similar conditions react the same way. And there are predators ready to offer them the most medically and psychologically addictive substances known to science.

The waiting list for addictions treatment is more than two years long in Ontario. And none of them will accept you if you have a criminal record with weapons or violence on it.

[5] In New York, the Republican Party hired a consultant to investigate the most efficient and least expensive way to deal with homelessness. He followed ten homeless men around for a year, carefully noting which and how much of each resource they were currently using. His final report noted that some of these men were consuming in excess of a shocking $300,000 per year worth of health care alone — not including the extra cost to policing and emergency shelter. He noted that it would literally be cheaper to build each one of these men his own house and staff it 24/7 with private nurses than to keep them homeless. This consultant now travels around North America, giving presentations to various levels of government on his findings.

As you can see, these issues are all extremely complex. The kind of people who shout “GET A JOB!” at panhandlers are not given to listening to this sort of information. I’d be interested to know how many people here looked at this wall of text, glazed over, and said TL;DR. Whether you agree with what I’ve written or not, click “Great Answer” if you’ve actually read this far.

lifeflame's avatar

Kudos to you for sharing this information.
I’ve no doubt that there are people in genuine need of help, and who resort to begging as a last resort, and am glad to hear that there are organisations such as yours, and people as passionate as you working to make their lives better.
No doubt they are as pissed off as you are about the professional beggars who are grabbing the headlines.

mattbrowne's avatar

No. We need new strategies to combat homelessness. Here’s an overview of strategy papers of various European countries:

I think approaches involving transitional and supportive housing go in the right direction. Jail is not the answer.

countrybumpkin's avatar

YES, he gets three squares and a warm bed as an extra.

Jaxk's avatar

Actually, John Stossel just did a special on this. He donned a scraggly beard and baggy clothes, sat on the sidewalk with a sign that said (I’m paraphrasing ) ‘anything you could spare would be appreciated’. Nothing aggressive, just fairly passive. After a while he changed the sign to say ‘I won’t lie I need a beer’. donations were pretty consistent with either sign and he made about $90 a day, which is about $23,000 a year, tax free.

It’s very hard to tell whether these guys are really strapped or just choose to live that way. I’m sure there’s some of both. But if the guy is a habitual panhandler, he’s probably not as destitute as you think.

WestRiverrat's avatar

Here the cops would have given him a ride to the county line in the direction of his choice and told him not to come back.

He never would have seen the judge.

RareDenver's avatar

@WestRiverrat so just move the problem on? Out of sight out of mind.

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