Begging and Homelessness in Cheltenham

Meeting a newspaper deadline often means that my column has to be written in advance. Apologies to those who were looking for a North Korea or Brexit update!

Instead I want to focus on an important local issue which many constituents have been raising with me: begging on the High Street and the Prom. It’s causing growing concern.

Housing charities like P3 in Cheltenham point out the difference between rough sleeping and begging. They tell me that often those begging do have a place to stay. And the charity, Thames Reach, states “Most rough sleepers don’t beg, and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

Actual homelessness is completely unacceptable in a decent society. In Cheltenham the last survey reported eleven rough sleepers. Each one is a human tragedy, a living rebuke to us to do more. That’s why I backed the Homeless Reduction Act which prioritises early intervention and prevention, and I campaigned for £1 million in additional government funding to tackle homelessness in Gloucestershire. That money funds the Streetlink reporting service, as well as a personal link worker for every entrenched rough sleeper in Cheltenham.

But begging is different. It is against the law, and unfair on those who access support through the normal channels. There are a number of reasons which may explain why Cheltenham is seeing a spike, ranging from unconfirmed reports of organised gangs, to the displacement effect of Bristol and Gloucester taking a more robust stance.

Whatever their circumstances, everyone is entitled to be treated with kindness and sensitivity. That includes those who are begging. I would like to see a public pay point in central Cheltenham to enable street donations direct to recognised charities like Cheltenham Open Door. But if people who are not homeless consistently decline to engage with charities or the authorities, the council should not be criticised for stepping in.