by Laura Heffes and Lucy Adams
‘I don’t think there should be any charges or anything else involved because you’re just putting more of a strain on someone [who is] already under pressure as it is … I think this is why a lot of the time things reoccur over and over again—because you’re trying to take something away from somebody that has nothing.’
It is still a crime to beg in Victoria.  Justice Connect Homeless Law—a specialist legal service for Victorians who are homeless or at risk of homelessness—recently spoke with 30 people who beg or have begged. 
This quote is from one of the people we spoke with. It identifies the futility of the current enforcement-based approach to begging.
Evidence and research over a 15 year period—including reports by Hanover Welfare Services (now Launch Housing), the Salvation Army and PILCH (now Justice Connect)—has consistently shown that people who beg experience high levels of hardship, including homelessness, mental illness, substance dependence, trauma, family violence and poverty. 
Despite this consistent evidence, media coverage and public commentary focus on questioning the vulnerability of people who beg, including persistent reports of professional begging.
The small minority of people who beg aggressively also dominates conversations regarding begging, and has shaped the response to begging in Victoria.
Of course, in a country as wealthy as ours, it is important to reduce the number of people who beg.
However, as a community, we continue to rely on the police and courts to tackle what is ultimately an issue of homelessness and poverty. In the last 5 years in Victoria, 841 charges have been laid against people for begging. 
This approach has imposed a significant burden on police and the courts. While data around costs and resourcing is limited in Victoria, a 2011 Canadian study showed that the cost of fining people for begging over an 11 year period was almost $1 million. While it took more than 16,000 hours of police time, less than $9,000 of the fines were paid. 
Victoria’s enforcement-based approach also causes highly vulnerable people to be caught up in the justice system as a result of homelessness and poverty. For example, of the 26 people charged with begging in the City of Melbourne during a March–April 2016 police operation, only eight were linked with support services via a diversion program. The remaining 14 had warrants issued for their arrest due to a failure to appear at court.
Ultimately, this approach is failing to achieve its goal of reducing the number of people who beg.
Informed by the evidence, along with consumer perspectives and direct work with people who have begged, seven leading organisations are calling for a more effective response to begging in Victoria.
They include Justice Connect Homeless Law, Melbourne City Mission, cohealth, Streetsmart, Council to Homeless Persons, Launch Housing and Victorian Council of Social Service.
The organisations came together in October during Anti-Poverty week to launch the campaign, Asking for Change.
The campaign made several recommendations. Aimed at specialist homelessness and health services, Victoria Police, local councils, local businesses and the Victorian Government, they include:
- accepting that the current response is not working;
- acknowledging that the vast majority of people who beg are experiencing high levels of vulnerability, including one or more of homelessness, mental illness, substance dependence, family violence, trauma and poverty;
- investing in a service-based response to begging, which focusses on access to housing and support. While
- not everyone who begs is experiencing homelessness, the significant majority are and access to housing with support is a critical component of an effective response to begging. 
- resisting the temptation to implement or encourage responses that focus on a minority of people begging aggressively – this small number of people can be dealt with by existing justice mechanisms (e.g. using threatening words in a public place).7
- presenting evidence-based messages to the public on begging and its causes to provide leadership rather than fuel knee-jerk reactions.
Victoria can do better than an old fashioned law and a dated response to homelessness and poverty. It’s time to genuinely address the underlying causes of begging and strengthen what works: long-term housing and access to services.
If you want to learn more about the Asking for Change campaign or hear stories of people with lived experience begging in Melbourne, visit www.justiceconnect.org.au/askingforchange
Laura Heffes is a Senior Criminal Lawyer at Justice Connect, Homeless Law.
Lucy Adams is Manager and Principal Lawyer.
1. Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) s 49 provides: (1) A person must not beg or gather alms; (2) A person must not cause, procure or encourage a child to beg or gather alms. This offence is punishable by a maximum penalty of 12 months imprisonment.
2. Twenty one people were clients represented by Homeless Law in the 2014 and 2016 Begging Lists at the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court, after they were charged with begging during a Victoria Police operation. The remaining nine participants were engaged through a voluntary consultation process.
3. See, eg, Michael Horn and Michelle Cooke, A Question of Begging: A study of the extent and nature of begging in the City of Melbourne (Hanover Welfare Services, June 2001); Philip Lynch, Begging for Change: Homelessness and the Law  Melbourne University Law Review 35; Philip Lynch, Understanding and Responding to Begging  Melbourne University Law Review 16; PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, We Want Change: Public Policy Responses to Begging in Melbourne (June 2005); PILCH Homeless Persons’ Legal Clinic, We Want Change! Calling for the abolition of the criminal offence of begging (November 2010); City of Melbourne, Begging Engagement Pathways and Support Program Evaluation Report (June 2015); Justice Connect Homeless Law, Asking for Change: Understanding and Responding to Begging in Melbourne (forthcoming).
4. Statistics obtained from the Crime Statistics Agency for the period January 2011 – December 2015.
5. Bill O’Grady, Stephen Gaetz and Kristy Buccieri, Can I See Your ID? The Policing of Youth Homelessness in Toronto (The Homeless Hub Report Series, No 5, 2011).
6. See, eg, Council to Homeless Persons, Pre-Budget Submission 2016–2017 (November 2015) and VCOSS, State Budget Submission 2016–17: Putting people back in the picture (2015) regarding Permanent Supportive Housing.
7. Summary Offences Act 1966 (Vic) s 17.