Life on the Streets

GARY does not know how much money he makes. His hourly rate varies. Sometimes it's no more than a clenched palm of silver. Often, a pound coin will glimmer in the lining of the jacket he lays before him and on occasion, a note, too.

• All of Scotland's cities have people begging, but attention has turned to the centre of Edinburgh, particularly Princes Street. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

The amount is dependent on a host of circumstances: his mood, the time of day, the weather, even last night's football results. "With the state the football in Scotland's in, that's no' good news for me," he jokes.

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A thin, friendly man in his early thirties, Gary has been begging on the streets of Glasgow for the past seven months. His descent to the streets began when he was paid off from his job in a warehouse, and was evicted from his private let after failing to keep up with rent.

He is a recovering heroin addict, but has been clean for nearly two years. He says drugs are commonplace among those who beg on the streets, but that he tries not to associate with them.

In the half-hour I spend talking to him in the Cowcaddens area, two people give him a total of 60 pence. At night, he sleeps in a nearby hostel. He aims to make around 10 a day to cover his food – although one office worker buys him lunch from Greggs most days – with the rest going towards a deposit for a flat. Sometimes, he admits, he will spend money on alcohol.

"I'm trying to get myself sorted, but it's hard keeping positive," he explains. "I'm not here to get enough for a bag or make a wage. I just want enough to get on my feet."

No-one knows for sure how many people like Gary there are on the nation's streets, but estimates suggest their numbers are only a few hundred strong. As one of the most potent symbols of social exclusion in 21st-century Scotland, one would expect a bulging dossier of studies relating to begging, material with which to offer guidance as to how best to eradicate a shaming problem. Yet there is a paucity of research, the majority of which involves small-scale studies of a few dozen people, and dates back to the 1990s.

Information on the begging population in urban areas is not gathered by local authorities, nor by homelessness charities. As one academic told The Scotsman, begging is considered an "awkward" field of research.

However, the void where statistics should be is filled by anecdotal claims that the problem is getting worse. That was the position this week of Ivan Artolli, general manager of the Balmoral, one of Edinburgh's most prestigious hotels. "You do not have the same problem in London, Paris, Brussels, Florence or Frankfurt," Mr Artolli told The Scotsman. "I have been writing to anyone I know in the city, because I think this is quite unacceptable. I have worked in 15 places across Europe and I have never come across a city with such tolerance of beggars."

Mr Artolli is not alone in his view that such a tolerance is on the wane across the capital. The begging issue was high on the agenda at a recent meeting of Morningside Community Council, whose members are keen to see the introduction of a by-law in the city which would ban beggars outright from taking up their pitches. Such policies have been mooted before, but as legislation stands, begging is not an offence. Only when its perpetrators resort to aggressive tactics can they be prosecuted under breach of the peace laws or antisocial behaviour orders.

Quite how many beggars there are on Edinburgh's streets is unclear. The most recent statistics from the Scottish Government show there were 685 households living in temporary accommodation in March 2009, with 4,704 homeless households last year. Of those who applied for homelessness assistance, some 10 per cent reported sleeping rough the night before. But taken together, these figures cannot establish how many people beg – not all who do so are homeless, for example, while not every rough sleeper begs.

As Dr Ian McIntosh, a senior lecturer and head of applied social science at the University of Stirling, and one of the few academics to research begging, points out: "The actual statistics for the numbers of people begging are very difficult to work out. It's looked at as an awkward subject. People have always said there's a rise in the number of beggars on the streets, but we don't know."

While the numbers are unclear, researchers and charities warn that overwhelmingly, those who beg do so out of desperate circumstances. A Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, which surveyed scores of people begging, sleeping rough, or selling the Big Issue in Edinburgh and Glasgow, found that begging is a "survival strategy overwhelmingly driven by need not greed".

Most of those interviewed told of a family background blighted by trauma and mental health issues, while almost half had been in residential school or foster care. Others reported growing up with parents who were drug users, while those involved in substance abuse took it up at an early age in an attempt to cope with painful experiences.

According to Crisis, the national charity for single homeless people, there is little financial gain to be made out of begging. While some London councils have reported that beggars can earn up to 300 a day, Crisis says the average individual is fortunate to find 10 to 20 left in their hat or cup. As Orwell once said, it is a trade "at which it is impossible to grow rich".

"The UK is the fifth richest country in the world and yet there are still people who feel they have no choice but to take to the streets to beg," said Graeme Brown, director of the housing and homelessness charity, Shelter Scotland. "Shelter does not condone aggressive begging in the slightest. It is unacceptable and should not be tolerated. However most people do not beg because it's an easy option – some feel they have no choice. For many they may beg because they are unable to access help."

Yet what compassion exists amongst the public for the grim life on those forced out on to the streets is often undone by those "professional" beggars. There has been increasing resentment towards the numbers of eastern European migrants often working as part of gangs across the country's cities, the vast majority of whom are not homeless. The Big Issue, the magazine, set up to help homeless people find their feet, has even banned some of its Romanian vendors for aggressive selling in Glasgow.

Of those migrants who beg, some play musical instruments, others are surrounded by their children, while the tactic of offering fake gold has been noted, too. Only two months ago, a group of eastern European men were spotted on several occasions standing at the side of the M9 next to a battered M-registration Mercedes, trying to flag down traffic. Those motorists who stopped were not asked for a jump-start, but money.

But on the south side of Glasgow, one Latvian woman told The Scotsman that she deplored such ruses. Emilija said she has been in Scotland for just over a year, and worked in a restaurant until November. "I was told I have not enough National Insurance contributions, so I have no money," she said. "I live with my sister but until we find a job I have to do this." The 25-year-old said she is regularly subject to abuse. "I am not Roma, but people think I am. I have been shouted at and spat on, but all I want is enough money to live with."

Such mistrust is not a surprise to Dr McIntosh. In his study, which looked at how people perceive beggars on Edinburgh's Princes Street, he found that shopworkers attempted to pinpoint those "legitimate" beggars before handing over money, often seeking out quasi-romantic notions of the vagrant.

"I feel sorry for the old guys," one man in his fifties said. "They've been on the road for years, that weatherbeaten look they've got, just their appearance on their face, maybe you can get make-up, I don't know, but they just look genuine."

Others, however, proved more cynical. "You've got other ones that probably have a 100,000 house somewhere, jump into their car and, you know, it's easy money for them," said one respondent.

"People tend to have an ambivalent attitude towards begging," Dr McIntosh said. "They jockey between feelings of sympathy, then being harsh about it. If you dropped 50 pence running for bus, you probably would keep running and not be bothered about it. But giving the same amount of money to a beggar has a moral aspect. People feel some embarrassment and guilt about whose fault it is."

WAR OF WORDS OVER NEED FOR NEW LAWS

ABERDEEN was the first city in Scotland to try to introduce a by-law that would ban begging outright. First mooted six years ago, the campaign stemmed from research that found a general begging population in Scotland's oil capital around 25 strong. Some of those individuals, the council, said, were not homeless.

A year later, Edinburgh City Council echoed the calls, while Scotland's biggest local authority in Glasgow stated the case for additional powers in the consultation for the Civic Government Scotland Act. The attempt to put the measure in place failed, however, with the previous administration ruling that there was no need for new legislation. Since then, the matter has refused to go away. Bill Aitken, the Tory MSP, has raised the possibility of a member's bill to crack down on aggressive begging.

Justice secretary Kenny MacAskill, pictured, has said he believes there is no need for a by-law, with police able to deal with aggressive begging through existing laws covering breach of the peace and antisocial behaviour orders.

In the first scheme of its kind in Scotland, Aberdeen City Council introduced begging boxes in an attempt to curb aggressive begging, but after just three months, the five outlets raised a total of just 348, and were relocated to shopping centres after being repeatedly targeted by thieves.