Begging or panhandling is the practice of imploring others to grant a favor, often a gift of money, with little or no expectation of reciprocation. Beggars may be found in public places such as transport routes, urban parks, and near busy markets. Besides money, they may also ask for food, drink, cigarettes or other small items.
According to a study in the journal of the Canadian Medical Association, "(70%) [of beggars] stated that they would prefer a minimum-wage job, typically citing a desire for a 'steady income' or 'getting off the street.' However, many felt they could not handle conventional jobs because of mental illness, physical disability or lack of skills."
Beggars have existed in human society since before the dawn of recorded history. Begging has happened in most societies around the world, though its prevalence and exact form vary.
Ancient Greeks distinguished between the ptochos (Greek: πτωχός, "passive poor" or "beggars") and the penes (Greek: ποινής, "active poor"), with the latter being accorded a higher social status. The New Testament contains several references to Jesus' status as the savior of the ptochos, usually translated as "the poor", considered the most wretched portion of society.
A Caveat or Warning for Common Cursitors, vulgarly called vagabonds, was first published in 1566 by Thomas Harman. From early modern England, another example is Robert Greene in his coney-catching pamphlets, the titles of which included "The Defence of Conny-catching," in which he argued there were worse crimes to be found among "reputable" people. The Beggar's Opera is a ballad opera in three acts written in 1728 by John Gay. The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew was first published in 1745. There are similar writers for many European countries in the early modern period.
According to Jackson J. Spielvogel, "Poverty was a highly visible problem in the eighteenth century, both in cities and in the countryside... Beggars in Bologna were estimated at 25 percent of the population; in Mainz, figures indicate that 30 percent of the people were beggars or prostitutes... In France and Britain by the end of the century, an estimated 10 percent of the people depended on charity or begging for their food."
The British Poor Laws, dating from the Renaissance, placed various restrictions on begging. At various times, begging was restricted to the disabled. This system developed into the workhouse, a state-operated institution where those unable to obtain other employment were forced to work in often grim conditions in exchange for a small amount of food. The welfare state of the 20th century greatly reduced the number of beggars by directly providing for the basic necessities of the poor from state funds.
Beggary is an age old social phenomenon in India. In the medieval and earlier times begging was considered to be an acceptable occupation which was embraced within the traditional social structure. This system of begging and alms-giving to mendicants and the poor is still widely practiced in India with over 400,000 beggars in 2015.
In contemporary India, beggars are often stigmatized as undeserving. People often believe that beggars are not destitute and instead call them professional beggars. There is a wide perception of begging scams. This view is refuted by grass root research organizations such as Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan, which claim that beggars and other homeless are overwhelmingly destitute and vulnerable. Their studies indicate that 99 percent men and 97 percent women resort to beggary due to abject poverty, distress migration from rural villages and the unavailability of employment.
Many religions have prescribed begging as the only acceptable means of support for certain classes of adherents, including Hinduism, Sufi Islam, Buddhism, and Jainism, typically to provide a way for certain adherents to focus exclusively on spiritual development without the possibility of becoming caught up in worldly affairs.
Religious ideals of ‘Bhiksha’ in Hinduism, ‘Zakat’ in Islam and ‘Charity’ in Christianity besides others promote alms-giving. This obligation of making gifts to god by alms-giving explains the occurrence of generous donations outside religious sites like temples and mosques to mendicants begging in the name of god.
In Buddhism, monks and nuns traditionally live by begging for alms, as did the historical Gautama Buddha himself. This is, among other reasons, so that lay people can gain religious merit by giving food, medicines, and other essential items to the monks. The monks seldom need to plead for food; in villages and towns throughout modern Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, and other Buddhist countries, householders can often be found at dawn every morning streaming down the road to the local temple to give food to the monks. In East Asia, monks and nuns were expected to farm or work for returns to feed themselves.
Begging has been restricted or prohibited at various times and for various reasons, typically revolving around a desire to preserve public order or to induce people to work rather than to beg for economic or moral reasons. Various European Poor Laws prohibited or regulated begging from the Renaissance to modern times, with varying levels of effectiveness and enforcement. Similar laws were adopted by many developing countries such as India.
There is no nationwide ban but it is illegal in several federal states.
The province of Ontario introduced its Safe Streets Act in 1999 to restrict specific kinds of begging, particularly certain narrowly defined cases of "aggressive" or abusive begging. In 2001 this law survived a court challenge under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The law was further upheld by the Court of Appeal for Ontario in January 2007.
One response to the anti-panhandling laws which were passed was the creation of the Ottawa Panhandlers Union which fights for the political rights of panhandlers. The union is a shop of the Industrial Workers of the World.
Begging in China is illegal if:
- Coercing, decoying or utilizing others to beg;
- Forcing others to beg, repeatedly tangling or using other means of nuisance.
Those cases are violations of the Article 41 of the Public Security Administration Punishment Law of the People's Republic of China. For the first case, offenders would receive a detention between 10 days and 15 days, with an additional fine under RMB 1,000; for the second case, it is punishable by a 5-day detention or warning.
According to Article 262(2) or the Criminal Law of the People's Republic of China, organizing disabled or children under 14 to beg is illegal and will be punished by up to 7 years in prison, and fined.
Begging in Denmark is illegal under section 197 of the penal code. Begging or letting a member of your household under 18 beg is illegal after being warned by the police and is punishable by 6 months in jail.
Begging has been legal in Finland since 1987 when the poor law was invalidated. In 2003, the Public Order Act replaced any local government rules and completely decriminalized begging.
A law against begging ended in 1994 but begging with aggressive animals or children is still outlawed.
Under article 407 of the Greek Penal Code, begging is punishable by up to 6 months in jail and up to a 3000 euro fine.
Begging with children or animals is forbidden but the law is not enforced.
Begging in Luxembourg is legal except when it is indulged in as a group or the beggar is a part of an organised effort. According to Chachipe a Roma rights advocacy NGO 1639 begging cases were reported by Luxembourgian law enforcement authorities. Roma beggars were arrested, handcuffed, taken to police stations and held for hours and had their money confiscated.
Begging is banned in some counties and there were plans for a nationwide ban in 2015, however this was dropped after the Centre Party withdrew their support.
Begging is prohibited in the Philippines under the Anti-Mendicancy Law of 1978 although this is not strictly enforced.
In Portugal, panhandlers normally beg in front of Catholic churches, at traffic lights or on special places in Lisbon or Oporto downtowns. Begging is not illegal in Portugal. Many social and religious institutions support homeless people and panhandlers and the Portuguese Social Security normally gives them a survival monetary subsidy.
Law 61 of 1991 forbids the persistent call for the mercy of the public, by a person which is able to work.
Begging is illegal under the Vagrancy Act of 1824. However it does not carry a jail sentence and is not well enforced in many cities, although since the Act applies in all public places it is enforced more frequently on public transport.
In May 2010, police in the city of Boston started cracking down on panhandling in the streets in downtown, and were conducting an educational outreach to residents advising them not to give to panhandlers. The Boston police distinguished active solicitation, or aggressive panhandling, versus passive panhandling of which an example is opening doors at store with a cup in hand but saying nothing.
U. S. Courts have repeatedly ruled that begging is protected by the First Amendment's free speech provisions. On August 14, 2013, the U. S. Court of Appeals struck down a Grand Rapids, Michigan anti-begging law on free speech grounds An Arcata, California law banning panhandling within twenty feet of stores was struck down on similar grounds in 2012.
Begging is criminalized in cities such as Mumbai and Delhi as per the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, BPBA (1959). Under this law, officials of the Social Welfare Department assisted by the police, conduct raids to pick up beggars who they then try in special courts called ‘beggar courts’. If convicted, they are sent to certified institutions called ‘beggar homes’ also known as ‘Sewa Kutir’ for a period ranging from one to ten years for detention, training and employment. The government of Delhi, besides criminalizing alms-seeking has also criminalized alms-giving on traffic signals to reduce the ‘nuisance’ of begging and ensure the smooth flow of traffic.
AAA and People's Union of Civil Liberties, PUCL have critiqued this Act and advocated for its repeal. Section 2(1) of the BPBA broadly defines ‘beggars’ as those individuals who directly solicit alms as well as those who have no visible means of subsistence and are found wandering around as beggars. Therefore, during the implementation of this law the homeless are often mistaken as beggars. Beggar homes, which are meant to provide vocational training, have been often found to have abysmal living conditions.
Begging in the USA
In many parts of Missouri, panhandling has been criminalised. Recently, there has been an array of lawsuits challenging the constitutional validity of such laws, claiming that a ban on panhandling breaches the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.
In Springfield for example, only ‘aggressive panhandling’ used to be criminalised, however a stricter panhandling ordinance passed in January 2014 banned verbal appeals for money within five feet of a street or sidewalk or 20 feet of a doorway or cafe. ‘Panhandling’ requires a verbal appeal, with silent solicitation illegal only within five feet of a street or highway off ramp.
A case brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a panhandler (Hunicutt) has halted the panhandling restrictions in Springfield. On December 16, 2015 a preliminary injunction was ordered by the court prohibiting the city from enforcing the ban and dismissing existing cases in which tickets had been issued for panhandling. Similar lawsuits have been brought in Belton, Bolivar and St Louis by the ACLU of Missouri, and in other states of the US.
The key argument in the lawsuits is that ordinances banning people from speech requesting money, food or other donations violates their right to free speech under the First Amendment. It is argued that the bans on panhandling are a restriction that selects who is allowed to speak based on the content of their speech.
Tony Rothert, the legal director for the ACLU of Missouri, says that inconsistent enforcement of the city’s panhandling laws is an issue, but that there are deeper flaws in the laws themselves. He claims that the bans are an unlawful interference of the government in choosing who is able to exercise free speech. To control the issue of panhandling, he claims that there are alternatives such as charging panhandlers when they trespass on private property or commit other violations such as causing a public disturbance. A recent US Supreme Court decision from Gilbert, Arizona provided support for this view, with the court finding that usually ‘content-based’ restrictions on speech will be unconstitutional, whereas ‘content-neutral’ alternatives such as noise restrictions or restrictions on blocking traffic are generally acceptable.
Missouri does have a homelessness issue, but it is relatively less of a concern compared to in other states. In 2015, there were 6482 homeless people residing in Missouri, a decrease of 36 per cent since 2012, indicating that the issue of homelessness may be improving. In 2014, Missouri’s homelessness rate was 12 per 10 000 population which was lower than the national average of 18.9 per 10 000. 83.5 per cent of Missouri’s homeless population was sheltered, which was a much larger proportion than the national average of 69.3 per cent.
Homelessness advocates claim that panhandling laws criminalize poverty and homelessness, but supporters of the laws claim that they prevent the enabling of addicts and allow them to get help. In the US, panhandling has been increasingly criminalised and Missouri is consistent with this trend. However, recent court decisions have problematized the enforcement of Missouri’s anti-panhandling laws and as such their future is uncertain.
Use of funds
A 2002 study of 54 panhandlers in Toronto reported that of a median monthly income of $638 Canadian dollars (CAD), those interviewed spent a median of $200 CAD on food and $192 CAD on alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs, according to Income and spending patterns among panhandlers, by Rohit Bose and Stephen W. Hwang. The Fraser Institute criticized this study citing problems with potential exclusion of lucrative forms of begging and the unreliability of reports from the panhandlers who were polled in the Bose/Hwang study.
In North America, panhandling money is widely reported to support substance abuse and other addictions. For example, outreach workers in downtown Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, surveyed that city's panhandling community and determined that approximately three-quarters use donated money to buy tobacco products while two-thirds buy solvents or alcohol. In Midtown Manhattan, one outreach worker anecdotally commented to the New York Times that substance abuse accounts for 90 percent of panhandling funds. This, too, may not be representative since outreach workers work with those with abuse problems.
Communities reducing street begging
Because of concerns that people begging on the street may use the money to support alcohol or drug abuse, some advise those wishing to give to beggars to give gift cards or vouchers for food or services, and not cash. Some shelters also offer business cards with information on the shelter's location and services, which can be given in lieu of cash. This has been criticised since there are typically far fewer shelter beds than people in need.
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