Johannes Lenhard, a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology, discusses his experience of researching the lives of people who beg and considers how they may be affected by new legislation. 

Public space in the city is in danger of becoming exclusively a privatised place for transportation, commerce and consumption. This affects everyone – not just people living on the street.

Johannes Lenhard

I got to know David in Shoreditch, East London, two years ago. He was 42 and had by that time been on and off the street for almost a decade. Not only does he have an intimate knowledge of what life on the street feels like, but he also knows what it’s like to do time in prison. When I met him the other day he told me: ‘I just came out again. They gave me an ASBO a while ago and then they caught me begging next to the station. They shut me away for six weeks and now I’m back where I was before. I mean, I have to do it. There’s nowhere else to go.’

As a doctoral student in social anthropology I’m working with people living on the streets of London, Cambridge and Paris. I have sat on the pavement with them watching uncountable legs walk past; I’ve spent hours in the parks and gardens of Shoreditch trying to ignore the cold. I’ve watched them struggling to make money as darkness falls and passers-by avert their gaze. Most of the 20 people I got to know on the street begged; others sold homeless magazines, like the Big Issue or Nervemeter; others again were on the streets only briefly to buy drugs. All of them told me about their lives, their routes into homelessness, and the problems that led them to the street. Some told me elaborate stories, but most were conscious of their own mistakes and failures.

David begs close to Shoreditch High Street station at least five days a week. He sits next to the exit of the station catching people as they rush in and out. He uses his voice as a tool to attract attention – no sign, no dog, no magazines. David has his regulars, people who frequently give him money, food and a few warm words. But, on a daily basis, he faces the risk of being taken into custody on the grounds of breaching his ASBO. But perhaps not for much longer: the legislation allowing easy and quick charges is being rethought with Parliament currently debating a bill that will replace the ASBO (Anti-Social Behaviour Order) with the IPNA (Injunction to Prevent Nuisance and Annoyance).

The IPNA is addressing the sort of behaviour that homeless people regularly exhibit: shouting, begging, public drinking, spitting, dropping litter. Unlike ASBOs, IPNAs will not result in a criminal record if they are violated but they can impose obligations. Under an IPNA, David might face requirements or prohibitions that aim to tackle the apparent causes of his ‘misbehaviour’. These conditions could include substance abuse treatments or a ban from begging in public. Whether enough resources – spaces in rehab clinics and the like – are available to meet these requirements is an unanswered question.

Set up by Tony Blair's Labour government in 1998 as the Crime and Disorder Act (CDA) and its supplement (the 2003 Anti-social Behaviour Act), ASBOs were supposed to be an efficient means of crime prevention. In conjunction with the 1824 Vagrancy Act and its 2003 follow-up, the Criminal Justice Act, aggressive begging among other activities was tackled with a whole nexus of laws. These laws established a framework that appeared to be well able to ‘take a stand against anti-social behaviour’. But with ASBO breaching rates of up to 75%, it was quickly clear that the impact of the legislation was limited. Discussions about a reform of the framework have pervaded ever since – but will the effectiveness change with the new IPNAs?

I’ve had many lengthy conversations with David. He has been a heroin addict for almost as long as he has been on the street. He has seen it all; he’s been to rehab-programmes, spent months in temporary hostels, visited numerous day centres, drug-addiction consultations and mental health clinics. He has been to prison four times in the last year alone. After each and every one of the treatments and custodial sentences, he has returned to the street. For food, and to fund his drug habit, David depends on the money he makes from begging.

The IPNA proposals are fuzzy: as they currently stand, they make the further stigmatisation and ‘criminalisation’ of an already marginalised part of society even easier. Under the new bill, a civil order would not depend on ‘harassment, alarm or distress’, as it was with ASBOs. The mere likelihood of future ‘nuisance and annoyance’ would be sufficient for an order. People like David are always ‘potentially creating a nuisance’; they are thus under constant threat of accruing an IPNA. David Cameron, local councils and the police are under pressure to demonstrate that they are doing something about ‘aggressive beggars’. On top of this, the popular press has made the public wary of an imagined threat posed by new migrants coming in from Romania and Bulgaria. At least for now the House of Lords has stopped the law.

There is a strong argument to be made that everyone has a fundamental right to the city. It is alarming that there might be a default procedure that bans activities of ‘questionable nature’ perceived to be ‘detrimental to the quality of life’ in an area. Public space in the city is in danger of becoming exclusively a privatised place for transportation, commerce and consumption. This affects everyone – not just people living on the street.

People who beg are a particularly easy target for the law. Their lives on the streets make them exposed; they have nowhere to hide and are unlikely to have the necessary cash to jump into a cab and make a dash for home after an excessive night out. Whether aggressive street fundraising as employed by charities, for instance, will be targeted under the terms of the IPNA is a different question (read one response: ‘complete nonsense’). It seems likely, however, that people living on the street – the ones that are now also dealing with ASBOs – are those who will be singled out by the change in legislation.

David as well as many of the other people on the street I have spoken to might be heroin addicts – but are they more aggressive than the hard-drinking rabble crawling through Shoreditch every weekend? How often have people asking for money been aggressive towards you? 

In all the time I spent with people on the street in East London, I did not witness even a hint of physical aggression towards passers-by. The only times that I saw David and others getting angry were when they felt belittled by their fellow human beings. When you look up at people walking by and they don’t even look down when you address them, the pavement suddenly becomes unbearably cold and you barely exist.These were the moments when David sometimes looked up a second time and shouted: “Manners ain’t cost nothing."   

Johannes Lenhard can be contacted on jfl37@cam.ac.uk and you can follow him on Twitter at @acjf37


 

 


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