Opinion piece

There has been a lot of heat and emotion about the issue of street begging in recent days – but unfortunately not much light.  So what is going on?

The proposed Public Safety and Nuisance Bylaw is designed to  replace  all the previous council bylaws with one; and because of the shared responsibilities, the new bylaw will be both an Auckland Council and Auckland Transport document.  The draft was released early this year for public consultation.

Public submissions closed in March and drew 117 submissions.  The council received responses on a wide variety of issues such as graffiti, glue-sniffing, vandalism in parks and public places.  Some of these issues came as a surprise.  For instance we received a surprisingly large number of submissions about conflicts caused by set-netting on northern beaches and surfcasting on Bucklands Beach – which had never previously been considered a nuisance or a hazard to public safety.  But lots of people in our communities think they are, and told the hearing panel so in no uncertain terms.

One issue of public concern though which came as no surprise was the issue of  begging.   In recent years this phenomenon has significantly increased, becoming more and more of a concern and a source of complaints from the public.  Especially so from mainstreet shopkeepers who say beggars permanently ensconced outside their doors are not only a nuisance but are putting off customers.  The legacy bylaws certainly dealt with begging or euphemistically termed equivalents but because of the way they were worded  they proved to be largely unenforceable.

The ineffectual wording of the old bylaws has been of concern to the police who tell us street begging is a problem which is linked with property crime, especially in the CBD.

The hearing panel therefore decided that along with all the other concerns brought to us by the public that this time we would try to do something meaningful to address  this and other  problems   – but in the most sensitive way possible.  Does this amount to banning begging – as the media and some critics have been saying? No.

The relevant bylaw clause in question is:

A person may not use a public place to: beg in a manner that may intimidate or cause a nuisance to any person.

The ‘qualifier’ (i.e. ‘in a manner that may intimidate or cause a nuisance to any person’) does not mean a total ban as alleged.  The council recognises that in some instances there are underlying issues as to why some members of our community are begging.  We are not interested in pursuing those who are passively begging but not causing any harm or nuisance.

However, what the new bylaw does mean that if begging – because of its location and/or duration, and the behaviour of the beggar – constitutes a nuisance or is aggressive ; and a member of the public makes a genuine complaint,  the council will now act on it.   The Council  compliance officers will talk to the beggar and ask them to leave. If necessary the beggar will be moved on from where he or she is causing a nuisance. Where the council ’s compliance officers identify an individual who needs help, assistance will be sought from the appropriate state agencies and charitable sector specialists, for counselling, medical treatment, income support and accommodation.

Recently council has utilised the New Beginnings Court to assist with individuals who have been on the streets for a number of years. Auckland City’s New Beginnings Court (Te Kooti o Timatanga hou), effectively a ‘Court within a Court’ operates out of the District Court at Auckland.

Established in 2010 the court is a pro-active multi-agency initiative aimed at dealing with persistent public place offenders, some who have continued to breach council bylaws, despite regular warnings and intervention. The court places them on programmes to address underlying issues and monitors their progress. The council intends to extend this practice to include persistent nuisance beggars under the proposed new bylaw. Without the bylaw there would be no opportunity to do this.

For too long the issue of begging has been ignored because councils have been unwilling to tackle the problem it seems due to well-meaning but misguided political pressure – this has effectively put the rights of beggars over the rights of citizens trying to make an honest living.

The process is by no means over – the draft bylaw will go before the Council Governing Body for final approval.  Hopefully the agreed provisions in the bylaw for socially responsible intervention to deal with the problem of street begging will remain intact.  Tossing a coin in the cup and walking on by is no longer a responsible option.

Cr Michael Lee, Chairman of the Public Safety & Nuisance Bylaw Hearing Panel.

First  published in NZ Herald 9 July 2013.

More posts from Mike Lee on his website here