National Geographic : 2009 Sep
PHOTO: LYNN JOHNSON CULTURE Facing Beggars In a downturn, begging goes on an upswing. "You do see more of it," says Roughan MacNamara of Focus Ireland, which aids the homeless. A typical government response is to crack down. Ireland, for instance, is rewriting 1847 anti-vagrancy laws so that police officers can round up "aggressive" beggars, deemed a threat to pedestrians, businesses, and tourism. Anti-begging laws are gaining popularity in North America as well, says University of Toronto criminologist Joe Hermer. But his research suggests that police initially enforce such laws, then inevitably turn to other issues---and beggars return to the streets. Another tactic to reduce begging is "diverted giving." There's a common perception that beggars use handouts for drugs and booze. So in cities like Baltimore and Denver, folks can drop coins in con- verted parking meters; the money goes to homeless charities. But beggars aren't all substance abusers. In a seminal 2001 U.K. survey, 45 percent cited food as their main purchase; 37 percent said drugs. Meanwhile, parking-meter altruism doesn't help everyone figure out how to react to a lonely, outstretched hand. "Sometimes I give, sometimes I don't," admits Ed Shurna, a Chicago advocate for the homeless. "But my philosophy is that I always say hello." ---Marc Silver Panhandlers, like this one in New York City, are a small but highly visible segment of the homeless. BEGGING LAWS Here are some methods used to reduce begging. ■ Ireland A new law targets beggars who threaten violence, beg repeatedly in one place, or use children as props. ■ India Motorists can be fined if they give to beggars at traffic lights. ■ United States Denver's "sit and lie" law says people can't block sidewalks. The police give warnings; outreach workers offer help. Arrests are a last resort.