Off the streets and under the carpet

WHEN I first set foot in Italy in the mid-1970s I was shocked. I had not encountered begging before.I had been tapped for the price of "a cup of tea" by a drunk or two in a London street, but I had never met or seen anyone who appeared to live on the street itself.

WHEN I first set foot in Italy in the mid-1970s I was shocked. I had not encountered begging before.

I had been tapped for the price of "a cup of tea" by a drunk or two in a London street, but I had never met or seen anyone who appeared to live on the street itself.

My eyes were opened wider in India later. A lot wider. But back in those pre-punk days of Parkas, tank-tops and flowing hair we simply didn't have beggars in Britain.

Homelessness belonged back in the black-and-white age known as between-the-wars. At its most recent, it might refer to a temporary condition brought on suddenly by a German bomb.

But the war was over long before I was born, and the very idea of homelessness had passed away with it into the realm of grim history.

Maybe I had a sheltered childhood – though I don't think so, particularly. Maybe it was coincidence that I went out to make my living in the world about the time that Margaret Thatcher came to power.

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Maybe it wasn't really Thatcherism that took homelessness and begging out of the history book and put it back in the real world. But it certainly seemed that way at the time.

It seemed to fit the whole foul ethos of the Eighties that while some people got stinking rich, others just got stinking.

It seemed the inevitable consequence of the I'm-all-right-Jack, new-money Toryism of the time.

Thatcher may be long gone as an icon of the times, but her political legacy lives on – even if it's switched parties. And begging is now so endemic on our streets one hardly notices any more.

Begging, of course, is illegal. And in several English towns and cities steps are being taken to "sweep it off the streets".

One such city is Manchester, where one beggar, Len Hockey, has been arrested 97 times.

Apart from the extraordinary waste of time and police resources that implies, it hardly seems to be working, does it?

Since 1982, a person cannot be locked up simply for begging. Police tried to slap an anti-social behaviour order on Mr Hockey, but without avail. His behaviour is not violent or threatening, so putting him under an Asbo would have been outrageous.

Manchester City Council is now trying another approach. It has applied for a civil injunction against Mr Hockey to stop begging. If the injunction is granted, and he breaks it, he could be jailed for contempt of court.

What sense does this make, exactly?

In a case of privatisation that sounds as if it could only come from a satirical skit, Manchester has what is called a City Centre Management Company. That company's spokesman insists that anti-begging injunctions could be a way to "coerce" people to seek help.

Well, Len Hockey certainly needs help. He's a heroin addict.

As his solicitor puts it: "The last thing my client needs is prison.

"He's desperately keen to get off the drugs. He says that begging is the least offensive method of generating an income stream, therefore if you threaten my client with prison you'll only make matters worse."

Mr Hockey, who is 51, admits straightforwardly that he doesn't beg for a cup of tea. He begs for cash to buy heroin.

Apparently, his habit costs £22,000 a year to support. If that's so, begging in Manchester city centre must be extraordinarily lucrative.

More lucrative, one would think, than many respectable jobs working for Manchester City Council or its City Centre Management Company.

Getting Len Hockey off drugs and into a decent job would undoubtedly be good both for him and for Manchester.

Simply forcing begging off the streets is surely liable, though, to force drug-addict beggars into other methods of funding their addiction. More violent methods, perhaps, or theft or burglary.

Which would give Manchester's police more to do than just seeing if they can bring their Hockey score to a round ton.

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