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section heading icon     overview

This note considers offline and online begging.

It covers -

  • this introduction, highlighting key concepts and studies
  • regimes - regulatory responses to begging in Australia and overseas
  • online - cyberbegging or online panhandling

The note supplements discussion of censorship (in particular restrictions on street behaviour), assembly, human rights and surveillance.

section marker icon     introduction

In essence, begging (aka panhandling or spanging, ie spare changing) involves solicitation of a gift - usually a small sum of money - by someone for that individual's personal use on the basis that the recipient does not have another source of income or that the other source of income is inadequate to feed/house the recipient and dependents.

It is associated with phenomena such as homelessness, unemployment, refugees and tourism. It is also stigmatised as involving crime, a challenge for the regulation of public and quasi-public spaces such as retail malls, and a source of national shame.

As the final page of this note indicates, begging is now evident online, both through spam email solicitations and through web pages that encourage the kind-hearted to give generously to support individuals with genuine or fictitious needs.

section marker icon     types

Commentators typically differentiate two types of begging: passive and aggressive.

Passive begging involves solicitation that is non-threatening and often non-verbal, with the beggar for example simply holding out a hand (or a cup) or sitting in front of a cap for receipt of coins and notes.

Aggressive begging involves "coercive solicitation" that features some degree of intimidatory action (such as following a potential donor down the street) and implied or actual threats.

section marker icon     locations

Offline begging reflects the characteristics of physical spaces, with panhandling typically occurring in locations where there is high pedestrian traffic - particularly traffic involving a demographic that is likely to give, whether through innate generosity or through considerations such as not being obstructed by individual/multiple beggars.

Some observers characterise beggars as inhabiting locations where there is a 'captive audience'. Some of those locations have associations with claims explicitly or implicitly made by the beggar, for example by panhandling outside a fast food venue by beggars claiming money for food, 'guilt tax' begging outside a church by people appealing to the donor's awareness of charity or what Canadian Jeremy Waldron characterises as "ethical confrontation" by begging near upmarket retailers.

Typical locations include -

  • office building entrances
  • ATMs
  • parking meters
  • transport nodes (including rail and bus stations, major road intersections and tollway entrances)
  • cultural precincts, particularly locations where there are queues for entry by tourists
  • major sports venues
  • petrol stations
  • fast food venues and restaurants
  • churches
  • convenience and grocery stores

Begging in advanced economies rarely occurs adjacent to locations such as police stations, courts, prisons, psychiatric facilities and military barracks.

section marker icon     the undeserving poor?

Notions of rich beggars date from at least the time of the Romans, with Elizabethan broadsheets warning against deception by workshy vagrants and Sherlock Holmes in The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891) encountering an ex-journalist who became a beggar to make more money.

Reality is more complicated and it is clear that many people would not gain a steady middle class income through begging outside Maccas or on the metro.

Louise Stark commented in 1992 that

Panhandling is generally engaged in when other economic resources . . . have been exhausted. Earnings are rarely saved. They are spent on short-term purchases, generally alcohol or drugs, occasionally food.

One reason is that many beggars do not make enough to pay for secure accommodation: carrying money around "can only lead to being robbed, and possibly beaten up in the process". In describing US beggars Stark claimed that the 'average'

panhandler works the streets only until he or she has enough money to purchase a bottle of beer or fortified wine, a vial of crack, or, rarely, a meal at a fast food restaurant.

Australian and overseas studies attribute begging to factors such as

  • economic restructuring and associated labour market changes, particularly with unemployment among low-skill workers and low-pay 'mac-jobs'
  • housing affordability problems
  • in-migration to urban areas of indigenous people who experience higher rates of poverty, unemployment and low educational attainment
  • domestic violence and a history of physical and sexual abuse
  • de-institutionalisation of the mentally ill
  • inadequate (or poorly coordinated) services for individuals and families experiencing poverty
  • cutbacks in welfare benefits and funding of social service organisations (including counselling centres and homeless shelters)
  • substance abuse.

section marker icon     impacts

The impact of begging is uncertain. Much of the literature on begging indicates that -

  • it is an integral and significant part of the economy of some tourist destinations in the third world
  • some begging involves people who are homeless and who may have psychiatric or substance-dependency problems that prevent them gaining/holding steady employment
  • some begging in first world economies involves people who have chosen to beg, in some instances because begging is more lucrative than other sources of income

Theorists have accordingly characterised some begging as a form of work, one with elements of artistry and skill acquired through experience and observation of role models.

Others have written of 'panhandler panic', with journalists and civic leaders being complicit in lurid media reports about dangers from deranged beggars (or about begging by stigmatised groups such as gypsies, refugees and Australian indigenous people) and claims that begging is associated with physical violence, drunkenness, shoplifting, prostitution, graffiti and offensive behaviour.

Such claims often discriminate between 'good' and 'bad' begging, with the bad variety for example pitched as threatening an area's tourism profile or involving "smelly wild-eyed old men" rather than cute kids.

Businesses and proponents of 'broken windows' urban policing have often indicated that one beggar in isolation does not present fundamental concerns, instead expressing concern that beggars "cluster" and thereby reduce the amenity of streets through -

  • annoyance to office workers, tourists, shoppers, commuters and other passers-by
  • interruption of traffic (eg by sleeping in or begging adjacent to doorways)
  • offensive behaviour such as urination in doorways or on flowerbeds
  • occupation of park benches and other facilities 'meant for' tourists
  • violence by one or more beggar against another.

section marker icon     responses

As the following page notes, there is substantial variation in legislative and 'on the ground' responses to begging, both on a nation by nation basis and on a city by city or precinct basis.

Some observers are broadly sympathetic to begging per se or see it as an expression of broader problems (homelessness, unemployment, discrimination) which if addressed will mean that begging is no longer an issue.

Other observers have taken a negative stance, arguing that begging is symptomatic of crime and public order problems, condemns the beggar to a shameful dependency or is chosen by the beggar, for example

Panhandlers have the ability to take care of themselves, but choose to panhandle because they are motivated to make money as quickly and easily as possible

For those observers begging requires action by police and other authorities, typically through restrictions on solicitation and associated directions that seek to punish loitering and vagrancy - what one critic characterises as "social street sweeping" in which "human refuse are swept out of sight of the shoppers" but are not assisted.

In Australia begging is a criminal offence in most of the states and territories.

Tamara Walsh notes that is a strict liability offence; the bases upon which those arrested for begging may defend the charge are limited and most people plead guilty and incur a penalty. Prosecutions typically involve magistrates courts: few decisions in relation to the offence of begging are appealed or reported. Walsh notes that 147 people appeared in Queensland lower courts charged with begging alms in 2001-02, with 241 begging charges being recorded in Victoria during the same period. Research by the Australian Institute of Criminology does not provide comprehensive figures, but appears to suggest that beggars are typically perceived as likely to be young, male and socially marginal.

That marginality is an issue for human rights figures such as Canadian activist Arthur Schafer, who argued in 1998 (PDF) that -

When society silences a panhandler or banishes the panhandler from places which have traditionally been public places, such banishment comes close to being a denial of recognition. Each of us has a fundamental need to be recognized by our fellow citizens as a person with needs and views. The criminalization of panhandling is not only an attack upon the income of beggars, it is an assault on their dignity and self-respect, on their right to seek self-realisation through public interaction with their fellow citizens

Other critics have argued that the criminalisation of begging (and surrogates such as 'vagrancy', 'littering', 'encumbering the sidewalk', 'soliciting in an aggressive manner') is

unjust and unwarranted. Begging is directly associated with extreme poverty and homelessness, and common justifications for the retention of begging offences, including safety fears, aesthetics and mere annoyance are unpersuasive.

James Kozlowski argued that in the US

begging in public places is a form of free-speech activity protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, the government may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on begging in public parks and places only to the extent that such regulations are content-neutral, narrowly tailored to serve a significant government interest and leave open ample alternative channels of communication

Some cities have sought to reshape urban architecture so that it is 'beggar unfriendly', for example Los Angeles as noted by Mike Davis in City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (New York: Vintage 1990) has installed sprinklers under some park benches to deter homeless people from using them as beds.

Others have used control of begging as a justification for deployment of large scale urban CCTV networks (although most research suggests that such systems are not a meaningful deterrent) or simply relied on police foot patrols (sometimes complemented by aggressive 'sweeping' on the part of private security personnel in/around quasi-public spaces).

As discussed in the following page of this note, much of that patrolling aims to inhibit begging simply by keeping beggars - or merely the homeless - on the move, excluding them from public spaces.

section marker icon     studies

Points of entry to the Australian literature are 'Defending Begging Offenders' by Tamara Walsh's in 4(1) QUT Law & Justice Journal (2004) (PDF) and ''You're Not Welcome Here': Police Move-On Powers and Discrimination Law' in 30(1) University of New South Wales Law Journal (2007) 151-173, 'Begging for Change: Homelessness and the Law' by Philip Lynch in 26(3) Melbourne University Law Review (2002) 690-698 and his 2005 MULR paper 'Understanding & Responding to Begging', 'Down and out? Homelessness and citizenship' by Carla Klease in 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights (2004), 'Homelessness, human rights and the law' by Ronald Sackville in 10(2) Australian Journal of Human Rights (2004) and Dropping Off The Edge (Carlton: Jesuit Social Services 2007) by Tony Vinson.

Works on overseas regimes include Marjorie Mayers' Street kids and streetscapes: Panhandling, politics and prophecies (New York: Peter Lang 2001), Begging questions: Street-level economic activity and social policy failure (Bristol: Policy Press 1999) edited by Hartley Dean, Jeremy Waldron's 2000 'Homelessness and Community' in 50(4) University of Toronto Law Journal (2000) 371-406 and Alison Wakefield's Selling Security: The Private Policing of Public Space (Cullompton: Willan 2003).

For law and enforcement see 'Economics of Anti-Begging Regulations' by Patricia Smith in 64(2) American Journal of Economics and Sociology (2005) 549-557, Joe Hermer's Policing Compassion: Begging Law and Power in Public Spaces (Oxford: Hart 2007), 'Fearing the Mirror: Responding to Beggars In a 'Kinder and Gentler' America' by Michael Burns in 19(3) Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly (1992) 783-844, 'Controlling Chronic Misconduct in City Spaces: Of Panhandlers, Skid Rows and Public-Space Zoning' by Robert Ellickson in 105(5) Yale Law Journal (1996) 1165-1124, 'Aggressive Panhandling Legislation and Free Speech Claims: Begging for Trouble' by Charles Mitchell in 39(4) New York Law School Law Review (1994) 697-717, 'Aggressive Panhandling Legislation and the Constitution: Evisceration of Fundamental Rights - Or Valid Restrictions Upon Offensive Conduct?' by Darryl Delmonico's in 23 Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly (1996) 557-590, and 'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? Panhandling in Public Parks and Places' by James Kozlowski in 34 NRPA Law Review (1999) 34-41.

For anxieties see 'Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime? Homelessness, Panhandling, and the Public' by Barry Lee & Chad Farrell in 38(3) Urban Affairs Review (2003) 299-324, 'The Regulation of Begging and Vagrancy: A Critical Discussion' by Roger Burke in 2(2) Crime Prevention and Community Safety (2000) 43-52, George Kelling & Catherine Coles' Fixing Broken Windows: Restoring Order and Reducing Crime in Our Communities (New York: Free Press 1996), 'The Professional Panhandling Plague' by Steven Malanga in 18(3) City Journal (2008) (available here) and George Wilson's influential 'Exposure to Panhandling and Beliefs About Poverty Causation' in 76(1) Sociology and Social Research (1991) 14-19.

Work on perceptions by contemporary beggars includes 'Stronger Than Dirt: Public Humiliation and Status Enhancement Among Panhandlers' by Stephen Lankenau in 28 Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 3 (1999) 288-318 and 'From Lemons to Lemonade: An Ethnographic Sketch of Late 20th Century Panhandling' by Louise Stark in 8(1) New England Journal of Public Policy (1992) 341-358. Stark's income figures are consistent with 'Income and spending patterns among panhandlers' by Rohit Bose & Stephen Hwang in 167(5) Canadian Medical Association Journal (2002) 477-479.

The extensive literature on the shape of indigence, regulation and representation of begging in the past includes Paola Pugliatti's Beggary and Theatre in Early Modern England (Aldershot: Ashgate 2003), Linda Woodbridge's Vagrancy, Homelessness and English Renaissance Literature (Urbana: Uni of Illinois Press 2001), William Carroll's Fat King, Lean Beggar: Representations of Poverty in the Age of Shakespeare (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 1996), Edward Thompson's Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act (New York: Pantheon 1975), Thomas Adams' superb Beggars & Bureaucrats: French Social Policy in the Age of the Enlightenment (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 1991), Todd DePastino's Citizen Hobo: How a Century of Homelessness Shaped America (Chicago: Uni of Chicago Press 2003), Kenneth Kusmer's Down and Out, on the Road: The Homeless in American History (Oxford: Oxford Uni Press 2001), Hanchao Lu's Street Criers: A Cultural History of Chinese Beggars (Stanford: Stanford Uni Press 2005) and The German Underworld: Deviants and Outcasts in German History (London: Routledge 1988) edited by Richard Evans.

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version of September 2008
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