19 Oct 2015

The rise of begging in New Zealand

From Nights, 7:35 pm on 19 October 2015

Part of Radio New Zealand's Begging in New Zealand series

By Sonia Sly

Hi there people, any spare change?  

That was the handwritten message on Horomona Potene Mason's first sign when he began begging thirteen years ago, but these days you're likely to see: Hi there people, any spare donations? I'm trying to look for work.

Begging in New Zealand

A man begging in Auckland. Photo: RNZ/ Diego Opatowski

It's the middle of winter when I meet Horomona Potene Mason (Horo) and he's rugged up in a hoodie and a heavy blanket covering his lap; a blue holdall the size of a body bag, beside him. The 28-year-old is friendly and happy to chat.

"I knew nothing about begging until I got to Auckland where a friend of mine got me to sit down with him and hold a sign. Eventually people started dropping down spare change [and] one chap from Australia put down all his pokie money - $900."

Horo has travelled between Auckland and Wellington to beg and it has become part of his daily routine to head out onto the streets to take a spot on the pavement. He goes into town come rain or shine and is content, he says, as long as there's adequate shelter.

In the past, Horo made up to $40 a day, but that has all changed since the increase in people on the street. More often than not, passers-by will drop hot food, as opposed to money. Horo says he's grateful for whatever he's given.

"I don't sit in the same area twice and it's first in first serve. Thirty dollars is sufficient for me to say, that's enough for the day and come back at night."

Horo attended Mana College and has worked in retail. He also speaks fluent Te Reo and dreams of becoming a Māori journalist. But life-changing events have presented a number of obstacles that have played a contributing role in his situation.

Begging in New Zealand

Photo: RNZ/ Diego Opatowski

His mother died of cancer when he was 12-years-old and he was subsequently fostered out to family that he didn't know, and a situation of abuse. He has also been dealing with psychosis and schizophrenia, which runs in the family, and has spent time in and out of psychiatric wards. More recently, he has left a problem with alcohol behind him.

The details about Horo's past are only the tip of the iceberg, and the rest is difficult to fathom.

Horo will be the first to tell you that life on the streets isn't easy, but he's come to accept begging as a way of life, and believes that it offers a sense of community and a place to belong: "I feel more down to earth with people that are in the same predicament as me [and] since that first time, I've never given up…it makes ends meet."

One of the only problems that Horo has encountered - and one that has become more frequent with the increase in people begging - is beggars stealing from each other when their backs are turned.

'A complex phenomenon'

"Street begging's a really complex social phenomenon [and] I don't think there's one simple explanation for the growth," Director of Down Town Community Ministry (DCM) in Wellington, Stephanie McIntyre says.

She says it's not surprising that beggars have made an appearance on New Zealand streets, and that we've been relatively slow to catch up with other countries around the world. What has changed in recent years, is that begging has become acceptable and people are showing signs of generosity here, she says.

"It's reached a level of social acceptability [and] I think there are some generous people who almost prefer to give some money to an individual, rather than an organisation."

A man sleeps rough on Auckland's waterfront.

A man sleeps rough on Auckland's waterfront. Photo: 123rf

Other contributing factors to the rise in begging have come via increases in rent and unaffordable accommodation over the past five years. McIntyre says changes to the benefit system mean that people have also been transferred from Invalid and Sickness benefits onto Job Seeker benefits.

It's a problem that often leaves people without any income for periods of time, she says.

McIntyre sees different cases coming through DCM - an organisation that helps people in need with a variety of services - which include finding accommodation for people, gaining access to health services and assistance with money management. For whatever reason, some people are without any form of identification and cannot gain access to services or facilities, such as opening a bank account-a basic requirement on application for a Work and Income benefit.  

And before assuming that beggars are using funds to enable substance addiction, she encourages people to think twice.  

"This is not a homogeneous group of people. For other people it's paying their rent and there are people who are begging who are housed. They might sit out there with signs saying I'm homeless -they know and understand [that] sitting out there with a little sign that says, 'I'm actually housed, but I don't have enough money to pay my rent will you contribute to me,' is too complex a message to get across to someone who is walking past you on the street."

Steve Flude is the manager of the Soup Kitchen, run through the Suzanne Aubert Compassion Centre, and regularly sits out on the street with Wellington's most vulnerable citizens. He liaises with around a dozen social service organisations who volunteer their professional social workers and support teams as part of an outreach programme.

Steve Flude

Steve Flude Photo: Supplied/ The Soup Kitchen

Flude says there are increasing concerns for younger people who are on their radar, along with older women in their 50s or 60s.

"There was a young guy living behind a wall for a number of months and the street outreach team kept trying to connect with him. He was hungry, not well dressed - it was having an impact on his mental health [and] it was the start of winter.

"To make that decision to sit out on the street all day, you'd have to be in a pretty low position."

Flude and his team managed to get the young man into a night shelter and hooked up with Te Aro Health to get him on his feet again, and back on a benefit. The reason he'd sought refuge on the street was due to a minor requirement that he needed to fulfil with Work and Income New Zealand.

There are many examples of situations like this that Flude has seen during his 25 years of working in outreach, and like McIntyre, he acknowledges there is a variety of issues.

"Some of them sit for money, some of them sit because they're socially isolated and want a connection with the wider community, some do it as part of a routine…"

He believes that begging isn't about a choice and refers to a quote from Martin Luther King: ''Don't question why people beg, but question the edifice that creates the need for people to beg''.  

"We're a rich country, homelessness is not a huge issue in this country, we could do something about it easily if we wanted to, but there isn't a willingness  to do it."
Currently the rise in begging could be seen as seen anecdotal as it seems like there is visible increase of those on the street but, to date, there are no statistics available to back this up.

Simon Tendeter, Communities and City Partnerships Team Leader and Alternate Emergency Welfare Manager for Wellington City Council, says that sourcing statistics relating to begging is difficult, especially given the transient nature of these individuals and the number of people sitting on the street varies from day-to-day.

Wellington City Council are in partnership with the Retailers Association and the local police to find a solution to the problem of begging.

'Pregnant and Homeless' sign (file photo).


"Our role is to better understand what the issues are, in order to better action a solution," he says.

Their main concern is about community and individual welfare.

A national Quality of Life survey was conducted in 2014 and shows that New Zealanders see begging as an issue.

What isn't clear is that this ''concern'' is not indicative of whether people are supportive or disapprove of begging as a growing phenomenon in this country.

Some members of the community might suggest that begging impacts on trade and tourism, but Wellington does not have any rules or regulations against begging, and Tendeter says that people are permitted to beg as long as they're seated on the pavement and not inhabiting space within store premises.

The Wellington City Council is looking to launch a project with associated research into begging between now and the beginning of 2016, which may call for the community and media involvement.

"The council is here to represent everyone, and we need to find solutions that attempt to meet everyone's needs," says Tendeter.

Begging in New Zealand runs from 19-22 October on Nights with Bryan Crump, with additional daily online content at radionz.co.nz.

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