Gerry Georgatos – Careless assumptions, predicated by unconscious and conscious biases and prejudices, when dished prematurely into public domains, particularly through the media, can lead to vilification of the vulnerable.

Classism as an -ism may seemingly endure into the ages, long after the rest of the -isms are done, dusted. But classism can be viciously ugly and pernicious when the media fails to challenge perceivably perfunctory reporting, which unchecked transforms as propaganda.

A couple of weeks ago, Melbourne police, accompanied by the media, arrested seven people who were begging. They were Chinese nationals, impoverished vulnerable individuals whose poverty indentured them to a syndicate, possibly an exploitive one, who paid for their flights to Australia.

Proceeds from the beggary were transferred to the syndicate in China.

But media lapped up the arrests of the individuals as if they were impostors, that they were not vulnerable, impoverished, homeless.

Begging is not limited to the homeless but also to the impoverished, to people struggling to keep a roof over their heads, struggling to pay the rent, to put food on the table.

Poverty is increasing, it is not in decline as the propaganda insists.

The seven individuals came to Australia from China on tourist visas. Why would these seven individuals sit on Melbourne’s streets and beg for maybe on average twenty to thirty dollars a day – day in day out – if they themselves weren’t impoverished? It is fair to argue that they are supporting their families in China with a dividend from what the syndicate accumulates.

The cheap tabloid outrage of Chinese nationals faking homelessness, as fake beggars, entrenches false stereotypes.

They were beggars, they did not fake begging. They begged to survive in Melbourne, to support their families in China despite a syndicate exploiting them and scoring the majority of the proceeds. Australia should not insist that it should be spared from increasing global poverty. The future will be increasingly one of harrowing poverty levels, the likes humankind has never seen before.

Europe is home to such beggary from sisters and brothers from other countries, not just displaced refugees but from syndicates that indenture the poor and hovel them in wealthier countries exploiting them but with the promise that their families will be assisted. This is desperation that the majority of Australians do not yet live.

The myth of professional begging is a sinful claim, we should neither argue or judge. Accusations of begging as fake are misleading and demonise.

Begging is mostly by the homeless but let us not vilify those too who beg to pay the rent, to provide food and essentials for their children, to pay utility bills so gas, electricity and water are not turned off.

Begging should not be criminalised and stigmatised. In a nation such as Australia, the world’s 12th biggest economy, with among the world’s highest median wages, the world’s highest median of accumulated adult wealth, there should be no homeless and much less need for beggary. Finland has reduced homelessness by 40 percent in recent years and in Helsinki built that many social houses that street present homelessness is nearly zero. The actual scandal is that Australia has a high rate of homelessness, that more than 10,000 Australians are strewn to the streets and that overall homelessness, in all its forms, is between 117,000 to 300,000 Australians, and increasing.

When it comes to the ‘law’, there is no criminal behaviour described as professional begging. There are vagrancy laws, and that’s a travesty but begging is not a crime and never should be. So why does the media pounce with unchecked reporting and describe people who beg, as professional beggars?

In all the various work I am involved, I have supported families living on the streets with babies, toddlers. I have seen families with newborns on the streets, hovelled in alleyways, parks, squats and traps. This is the Australia I know, that most Australians in my view do not realise. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, nearly 20 percent of Australia’s homeless are comprised of children aged 12 years and less.

The Victoria Police were obligated to crack a syndicate but there was no need to describe beggars as if not beggars. The fact that the beggars that were arrested had a roof over their heads does not mean they were not beggars. The majority of Australia’s homeless do not sleep rough, but go from to refuge to refuge, couch-surf, spend most of their welfare payments on hostels, caravan parks. Many of the homeless pitch $20 tents in ‘caravan’ parks. They beg so they, their families, can eat.

Let us understand beggary for what it is – poverty.

Chase down the syndicates but don’t vilify and criminalise the beggars.

 

  • Gerry Georgatos is a suicide prevention and poverty researcher. He is also the national coordinator of the National Suicide Prevention & Trauma Recovery Project.
  • Crisis support services can be reached 24 hours a day: Lifeline 13 11 14; Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467; Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800; MensLine Australia 1300 78 99 78; Beyond Blue 1300 22 4636.