Courts are not the answer to begging, says lawyer: 'You can't legislate away poverty'

Using council bylaws against soliciting to crack down on beggars could be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, ...
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Using council bylaws against soliciting to crack down on beggars could be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act, Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight said.

Three Napier beggars are likely to become the centre of a test case over councils' ability to tackle begging, with their lawyer telling a court:  "Quite frankly, the council can't legislate away poverty."

Myles Hemopo, 40, Major Keelan, 47, and Turei Cooper, 31, who are often seen sitting with cardboard signs in the city centre, appeared before two justices of the peace in Napier District Court on Friday.

Duty lawyer Phil Jenson said: "They are entitled to their day in court, and this matter really needs to be clarified.

Myles Hemopo, one of three Napier men to have been charged in connection with begging in the city.
MARTY SHARPE/ FAIRFAX NZ

Myles Hemopo, one of three Napier men to have been charged in connection with begging in the city.

​"Otherwise they will be coming back again and again on this matter.

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"When poverty gets to the state where it breaks out onto the street, we should really face it."

Criminology lecturer Ronald Kramer, of Auckland University, said after the hearing that using criminal law to address problems such as homelessness and poverty would only make them worse.

"I don't think it has any deterrent value at all. The only thing it will do is push the problems somewhere else, or encourage it to take different forms."

He did not believe Napier City Council was concerned with poverty at all, but about preserving businesses interests, and cleaning up the streets so middle-class consumers did not find them offensive.

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Hauling beggars before the courts was putting "a very poor Band-Aid on a very deep wound".

It's a superficial solution to a deeply ingrained social problem".

Victoria University senior law lecturer Dean Knight said it was possible using the bylaw against soliciting to crack down on beggars could be inconsistent with the Bill of Rights Act.

The three men's alleged offending occurred on various dates in May. Keelan faces charges of soliciting for money and breaching city bylaws, Hemopo of breaching a bylaw, and Cooper of soliciting for money and disorderly behaviour.

The men, who Jensen said were all were "under the aegis of mental health", were remanded at large until next month.

Outside court, Hemopo said he and the others minded their own business and were not aggressive.

"They move us on, usually the cops. They're usually good about it, but there's the odd cop who doesn't like it full stop, and that's why we're at court."

He said he lived on the street. He would rather be in a house, but for various reasons he could not be.

"People are very generous. That's why I still do it. Because they give us heaps of money."

Napier City Council began foot patrols of the city in March as part of a campaign to deter donors from giving beggars money.

It said there were 10 men known to beg in the city as part of a syndicate, and they were "cashing in on the kindness of strangers", earning about $100 a day then spending it on "illegal drugs such as highly addictive synthetic cannabis", or gambling.

Earlier this month, the council's community planning manager, Natasha Carswell, said the campaign had resulted in a reduction in the number of beggars.

There had been 10 patrols over nine days by police, council staff and mental health workers.

"In terms of the number of beggars, we believe the campaign has helped lower it," she said.

"We are seeing around six people around the city, which is about half the number we saw before our campaign began, and the six are not begging as frequently."

There had been a small number of "abusive interactions", she said, but overall the patrols had been well received and there was work under way to plan for next summer.

 - Stuff

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