Most people who live in houses worth less than a million pounds know where to find homeless people. They exist in most towns and are a constant source of sadness for people with good hearts. Many of us also learn to spot the fakes, the people who arrive in our towns each day masquerading as homeless in an attempt to con people out of their money. Some are quite insistent, trying to harass you into coughing up, either through shame or fear. The police never seem to see them, and when they seem to have gone away, you’ll often find them in another town nearby, occupying a different pitch.
Businessman Ashley Sims from Torquay started photographing what he called professional beggars camped out in the seaside resort in an attempt to shame them into leaving by threatening to post their pictures on social media sites. Of the 17 people he photographed, he says only two were genuine. Mr Sims explained that he was doing it to protect “genuinely homeless” people who were getting “grief from professional beggars”.
Mr Sims said: “The people who are genuinely homeless are already getting grief because of the hostility of the professional beggars. Most people in the town centre aren’t genuinely homeless, and the real homeless are getting the grief – genuinely homeless people are getting urinated on, they’re getting spat on. The professional beggars are brilliant at their jobs. They evolve, they move on, they reinvent themselves, they know where to move, they tag-team each other if people are starting to get aggressive and move all around the town.”
Mr Sims is urging people to give directly to homeless charities instead of handing cash to people on the street, to enssure their money goes to those genuinely in need.
Ellie Waugh, from homeless charity Humanity Torbay, said: “We don’t believe in naming and shaming but the genuine homeless can go down the end of the town now without fear of reprisals.” She said there had been at least 18 professional beggars in the town who had beaten up and stolen from those who were genuinely homeless.
Local shopkeeper Zoe Scriven said: “We see aggressive begging all the time. They position themselves at the cash machine intimidating people, especially the elderly who are frightened into giving them money.”
The local council and police both condemned the campaign. “The dangerous practice of ‘outing’ people as professional criminals, based on often unverifiable information, fails to acknowledge the very complex vulnerabilities and chaotic lives of those concerned,” Superintendent Jacqui Hawley, from Devon and Cornwall Police, said in a statement.
“We in no way condone this activity and take the view the campaign should cease with immediate effect. We support a multi-agency approach to addressing Torquay’s town centre problems and encourage those driving the campaign to engage with police and the local authority to support a safe and effective mechanism to address these issues.”
A Torbay Council spokesperson said it had “very real concern” about the campaign, saying: “Torbay Council knows that an individual’s circumstances can frequently change, sometimes on a daily basis, meaning that being able to make a judgement on whether someone is street homeless or not is in many cases a fact that will remain accurate for only a limited period of time. We are already aware of an individual wrongly identified as ‘fake homeless,’ who has then been the subject of abuse via social media. The actions being proposed by this campaign encourages vigilantism and enables anyone so-minded to target people, and is therefore unacceptable. We have asked that the campaign be halted.”
It’s all very well the local council and police opposing what local residents have done in an attempt to rid themselves of professional beggars, but had they resolved the problem through their “multi-agency approach”, there would have been no need. Far too often, what local residents want and need is the very last thing the local council or police care about.
Towns across the country are plagued by professional beggars and nobody does anything to stop it. Maybe every town should have its own homeless photographer, documenting those who are genuine for safety’s sake and publicising those who are fakes. It’s a bloody good idea.