Jeremy Elwood & Michele A'Court: Should beggars be banned?

Some people have called for beggars to be banned from city streets. But will that solve anything?

Some people have called for beggars to be banned from city streets. But will that solve anything?

OPINION: Husband-and-wife comedians and commentators Jeremy Elwood and Michele A'Court give their views.

JEREMY ELWOOD: Just under two decades ago, I was wandering the streets of London, literally penniless, looking into gutters for coins. I didn't have a job. I had somewhere to stay but I needed a train fare to get there.

It was, then and now, the lowest point of my life. It wasn't the first time I'd been broke, and in the past I'd turned to busking as a last resort to raise the money to get me home, but this time my guitar was where I was trying to get to and I had nothing.

For the first, and thankfully only time in my life, I considered begging. 

Jeremy Elwood: 'I'm not sorry that beggars make people uncomfortable. They should.'

Jeremy Elwood: 'I'm not sorry that beggars make people uncomfortable. They should.'

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Miraculously, I ran into an old friend who loaned me the few pounds I needed and I got home, found a job, and carried on with my life. Thank you, Esther.

I have never forgotten that feeling of having absolutely nothing to rely on but the kindness of strangers. That's why it makes me furious to read the recent calls for beggars to be banned from the streets of Wellington and Auckland. 

Begging is the lowest rung on the ladder of Western Society. Ninety-nine-point-nine per cent of us will never consider doing it, because we won't ever have to. Yes, I'm sure there are some who do it by choice, some who exploit the loopholes around legality and empathy for their own financial gain, and others who exploit the exploited.

Shortly after the episode I just described, I was living in Edinburgh and witnessed a gang outside my bedsit renting out dogs to the homeless to help elicit more sympathy. But as the Panama papers have shown, a lack of ethics is hardly confined to the poor. 

The people who are calling for beggars to be banned are the same people who think addiction is a lifestyle choice, ill-health is a result of poor self control, and being poor is simply the result of bad decisions. 

I'm not sorry that beggars make people uncomfortable. They should. The idea that in a country as progressive as New Zealand that there are still people who have to beg to get by is repulsive. 

Yes, we have a welfare system but we still have people who fall through the cracks. Those who say "they should just go to WINZ" should try that themselves sometime – our system is far from flawless; it takes time and paperwork even if you do qualify for help, and not everyone does. 

You don't have to give money to beggars, but the idea of simply banishing them from sight is the equivalent of 19th century leper colonies. It only serves to make us feel healthier; it does nothing to cure the disease.

MICHELE A'COURT: It's not that I don't like rich people – some of my best friends are comfortably off. What bothers me about some people who live with vast amounts of money (or who aspire to live with it) is the amnesia it causes, or lack of imagination it inflicts.

The inability to either remember, or imagine, what being poor is like. That crushing paralysis of having no choices and seeing no way out. The shame of not being able to properly care for yourself, or the people you are responsible for.

Michele A'Court: 'Most of us are only a cluster of catastrophes away from homelessness.'

Michele A'Court: 'Most of us are only a cluster of catastrophes away from homelessness.'

You wouldn't want to dwell on it, but most of us are only a cluster of catastrophes away from homelessness. Lose your job, your relationship, get an unexpected major bill, and suffer an addiction or other serious illness; one of those at a time can be survivable.

If they turn up in clusters, not so much. Most of us live with some level of awareness that the whole thing could fall apart, or remember a time when it came close. 

But some of us get so used to having stuff, and surround ourselves with other people who have stuff, we either forget, or never knew, that people who have nothing can also be complex, fascinating, generous and proud. We end up only wanting to give to charities if the recipient of our charity isn't actually standing right in front of us in dirty trousers.

It's the kind of amnesia or lack of imagination that leads to middle-class conservatives deriding "liberals" and their "politically correct waffle" for suggesting the solution to street begging is not a ban on beggars, but a co-ordinated response with police, social agencies, central government, and community groups to develop a comprehensive plan and "blah, blah, blah".

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Damn straight, Larry. That's no way to deal with housing problems. We can all recall the leaky homes debacle, when the last thing middleclass homeowners wanted was some kind of namby-pamby coordinated response from those responsible. Hell, no. Just paint over the ugly bits and avert your eyes– that's how we deal with housing issues. Am I right?

Tell you what - while we're having a conversation about banning people who make us look bad and produce nothing much of value but want a piece of whatever it is you have, let's make a proper list.

Let's ban people who run large companies that don't pay taxes; investment companies that abscond with your life savings; real estate agents who call to your house uninvited because they fancy a percentage of its' value; strangers phoning at dinner time aggressively insisting you give them your money in exchange for heat pumps you don't want; and random blokes in the CBD who assume their opinion about a woman's sexual attractiveness is something everyone wants to hear.

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