Thursday, July 4, 2013

"Offending every clean person"

We like to think of ourselves as somehow being a cut above our primitive forebears: the ones who let people starve to death in prisons; who apprenticed 5 year olds to sweep chimneys; and left the infirm and disabled to beg for alms in order to eat.

Turns out we haven't come that far after all. Following in the steps of local authorities the world over trying to deal with the inequitable outcomes of neoliberalism, the Auckland Council has before it a proposal to 'ban begging'.

And we know it will work. Because it always has in the past. Or has it? 

Sturdy beggar being whipped. The less fortunate can be seen in the top left hand corner.

Begging, it seems, is as old as humanity. And the respectable complaining about beggars is about as old. In 1538 the City of London unsuccessfully petitioned Henry the 8th for hospitals to house “….the miserable people lying in the street, offending every clean person passing by the way with their filth and nasty savours.” About the same time the Poor Laws directed “how aged, poor, and impotent persons, compelled to live by Alms, shall be ordered, and how Vagabonds and Beggars shall be punished." Punishment included being whipped or put in stocks for three days and three nights with bread and water only.

These days Councils avoid the stocks and whips and prefer instead to just move beggars on, or in the case of Auckland, prohibit begging altogether. This, of course, completely misses the point which is why are there so many panhandlers in Queen St now whereas once they were reasonably rare? Have the underclass, having lived like trolls for years under bridges, suddenly had a genetic mutation that has caused them to seek sunlight in the Queen St canyon and beg for alms? 

The science of genetics suggests not. It seems more likely the increase in homelessness reflects the chronic, grinding lack of income that comes from not being in stable full-time work combined with Auckland's severe lack of affordable housing (a problem also shared by many cities). While the Mayor, the Council and central government are wittering about housing and doing sod all, the outcomes of their unwillingness to act are impeding the lunchtime errands of the well-to-do.

Instead of pretending the homeless can be made invisible, it's time for someone at the Council to show some leadership on housing and implement an affordable housing policy that includes accommodation for single people. And instead of writing vague, wordy strategies, the Council needs to work with other agencies to get the indigent off the street and into programmes that will improve their chances of getting - and keeping - paid work. 

Much as whipping and hanging beggars couldn't disguise the economic savagery of Elizabethan England, banning begging won't hide the poverty and inequality that is a defining feature of neoliberal Auckland. It's just another band-aid solution brought to you by an elite with no interest in dealing with the underlying issues.