Why is it that in the UK we are so quick to believe that the beggars on our streets are there out of choice but when it comes to abroad we feel that they have no other option? Controversially, in 2003 the government made begging a recordable offence. This was an attempt to tackle anti-social behaviour with the government claiming, “some aggressive beggars…can intimidate the public”. Is begging a problem of anti-social behaviour or of social exclusion? When looking at Asia, almost all of us would say that it was a problem of the latter.
The homelessness charity Crisis estimates that over 80% of beggars in the United Kingdom have nowhere to live. Officially there are 1,247 homeless people in the UK but charities estimate the figure to be at least ten times higher than this. Shockingly the government has been reported to often not count people as homeless unless they are lying down asleep. In a stark contrast to official figures Centrepoint claims, “80,000 young people experience homelessness in the UK each year”. Of course in places such as Asia this figure is inordinately higher, reaching in to the millions, and yes, the beggars in third world countries suffer from higher rates of poverty and disease than in our own country. However, it’s all relative: Asia takes up 30% of the Earth’s surface and has a population of almost four billion people whereas the UK takes up only 0.16% of the Earth’s surface and has a population of approximately only sixty two million people.
Comparatively, the differences between the people begging in this country and the general public are just as stark as the differences between the beggars in Asia and the general population there. Despite a popular feeling in recent years that beggars in the UK are driven by greed not need, begging at home occurs just as much out of necessity as it does abroad. Once homeless, it is extremely hard to receive benefits or get work; there is no other source of income for these people as with beggars that we sympathise with overseas.
Although the problem may seem worse abroad than here in the UK, we have to remember how small the UK is as an entity and that to have, as estimated by homelessness charities, tens of thousands of people sleeping rough and begging is just not acceptable. In my opinion, this issue can be tackled by supporting charities such as Crisis, Shelter and Centrepoint.
This article forms part of Impact‘s series on begging. Read more in the Travel section.