“Professional beggars” target the city, but police focus on those genuinely experiencing homelessness

Brendan Rees

A small number of “professional beggars” who are not legitimate rough sleepers are targeting the city and Southbank however authorities say they are gearing their efforts to people in genuine need.

The City of Melbourne and Victoria Police confirmed a small group of people was travelling into the CBD to beg on the streets despite having accommodation, with much of this activity reported to be taking place along Southbank Promenade.

A Southbank Safety and Security Committee meeting held in June between the City of Melbourne, local police, community members, and stakeholders heard that some beggars “actually have homes” but were operating “as a gang” in the city’s streets, with one understood to be earning up to $1000 a day.

The meeting discussed how generous passers-by would give away a few coins to appease their guilt, but the outcome “would  be much better” directing that money to a genuine homelessness charity.

Victoria Police Inspector Jamie Templeton said while police had the ability to enforce against begging, “we predominantly focus our efforts on ensuring those genuinely experiencing homelessness are connected to appropriate support services”.

Insp. Templeton said uniformed police and PSOs were regularly supported by specialist resources from the Mounted Branch, Dog Squad, Public Order Response Team, Water Police and Divisional Response Units “to patrol the city, target crime and provide reassurance to the community about their safety”.

“Anyone who commits criminal or anti-social behaviour that puts the community at risk can expect a swift response from police.”

Professional begging was brought into the spotlight in 2019 after police charged a group of Chinese nationals with begging and possessing property suspected of being the proceeds of crime during a targeted operation, sparking public outrage.

The City of Melbourne said it was aware of the behaviour, but “professional begging” was a matter for Victoria Police.

“Every Melburnian deserves access to safe and secure housing. We’re continuing to work closely with relevant agencies and Victoria Police to support people experiencing homelessness and help connect them with essential services,” a City of Melbourne spokesperson said.

The City of Melbourne has a daily support team which provides proactive, on-street support for people sleeping rough and its members “know most of them by name” with about 60 to 90 people currently sleeping rough in the municipality.

“It is one of [the] council’s top priorities to provide more safe and supported accommodation for people who are sleeping rough on our city streets,” the council said with a major project including the redevelopment 602 Little Bourke St, which will deliver 50 studio units to reduce homelessness in the CBD. Unison Housing will manage the accommodation when it is completed in 2023.

In March 2021, sister publication CBD News reported legal groups having called on the state government to decriminalise begging after arguing that begging offences caused vulnerable people to be unnecessarily caught within the justice system.

However, this was opposed by Victoria Police, who warned it could not regulate “professional beggars” in the CBD without the law.

Southbank police commander Senior Sergeant Alex O’Toole said there had been a shift of people experiencing homelessness coming over to Southbank.

“It’s not an easy issue, it’s very complicated because it takes a lot of different stakeholders to try and break that cycle,” she said.

“Police work in conjunction with the City of Melbourne, the Salvation Army and other services to do as much as possible where we identify people as being homeless to be able to put them into housing and in touch with the relevant services.”

The Yarra River Business Association said while it had empathy for those who were sleeping rough on the streets, “it’s not a good look for the Southbank business area to have beggars at key points,” and any suggestion that professional beggars were targeting residents and visitors was “quite disturbing”. 

CBD-based Salvation Army welfare worker Major Brendan Nottle said his team had “definitely not” seen “that sort of organised begging like we saw a few years ago with the Chinese beggars”.

However, he said there was a group of people who had accommodation and were begging in the city as they struggled to make ends meet.

“Our concern is when that group becomes aggressive within their begging, it can be very unsettling for people that are in the city for work or visiting,” he said, but added this group was limited to less than 10 that they were aware of.

“We certainly don’t want people thinking all beggars are in that category.”

Maj Nottle said another group he had seen begging in the city was supported by the Supported Residential Services, which provides accommodation and support for Victorians.

“They’ve often got an acquired brain injury or a form of complex disability, and in some cases they are spending up to 87 per cent of their income on accommodation,” he said.

“That group will end up begging for things like cigarettes … or money they can put on their Myki card.”

“They’re a group that need our support and care, not our judgement, because in those particular cases they’re living pretty sad lives.”

“They just don’t have the additional money … all their money is going into rent.”

Maj Nottle said beggars were also in Southbank, not just the Hoddle Grid.

The City of Melbourne provides funding to the Salvation Army’s Night Café and Frontyard Youth Services, and recently committed further funding to support the reintroduction of the Salvation Army’s Youth Street Teams.

The Council to Homeless Persons’ CEO Jenny Smith said cost-of-living pressure and rental hikes were pushing some people to the brink.

 

“People on Jobseeker, those on the lowest income of $321 per week are facing a minimum rental in a rooming house of $220 per week; leaving $14 a day for everything else,” she said.

 

“In those circumstances, begging to have more money for food, clothes and transport may be the safest available option.”

Ms Smith said people experiencing homelessness may be low income working families, older people squeezed out of the rental market, women and children escaping a violent home, or people with a disability or illness.

“But what they all need is affordable, safe homes. That’s why we need to build more social housing, and lift income support payments.”

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