Shaming desperate people as “fake homeless” just reveals the depths of our prejudices

A group in Torquay has started taking pictures of beggars and posting them online with the claim they are frauds.

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Can you tell a fake homeless person from a real one?

That’s the question occupying the minds of a small, but vocal, campaign group in Torquay, which has started photographing people begging on our streets. It then publishes faces of those it claims are frauds because they have homes to go to.

As a volunteer who has worked with rough sleepers for many years, I’m used to a background noise of prejudice, but this is a whole new step towards vigilantism which has to be challenged.

The ease with which this tiny group, which goes by the name “Fake Homeless”, has whipped up hostility towards beggars is alarming. Its spokesman Ashley Sims says he researched Torquay’s beggars for a month and discovered that out of 17 people in the town centre only two were actually homeless.

How does he know that? Which bonafide homeless charities would ever disclose personal information?

Suggesting there is such a small percentage of “real” homeless makes it easy to dismiss every beggar as a fraudster. It acts as a smokescreen for the social cleansing of homeless people from our streets, aided by the tyranny of social media.

And even if some of Torquay’s beggars (and there are really not that many), do have a hostel bed or church hall to sleep in, that should not disqualify them from being treated with dignity and respect.

After years of volunteering at the Leonard Stocks homeless hostel in Torquay, I’ve got to know some of the faces. Begging is generally a desperate bid to scrape together a few coins to buy drugs or alcohol. They are not professional beggars changing out of smart designer clothes into rags, but genuinely desperate, sad, lonely, alienated human beings with profound problems who are living at the edge of our communities.

Many are revolving door clients, moving in and out of accommodation as it breaks down. All are vulnerable.

For years now, some people have linked the decline of Torquay town centre with the presence of beggars and rough sleepers. If only the council or police would move them on, they say, then the shoppers would return. The real reason businesses are suffering is poor investment, Government austerity and the move to out-of-town shopping over many decades. But, of course, it’s easier to blame the beggars and destitute.

And there’s no doubt that doing so is popular. Since the Fake Homeless campaign was publicised, Mr Simms claimed on Radio 4 to have recruited a further 270 photographers to carry on his work in other towns and cities. We’ve seen open expressions of prejudice towards rough sleepers elsewhere. Last month a Windsor councillor, Simon Dudley, was revealed to have written a letter to Thames Valley police demanding they enforce vagrancy laws to remove beggars from the streets ahead of the royal wedding. In Ely, a police officer, claimed there were no rough sleepers in the city, just beggars, and by implication undeserving of our compassion.

It harks back to the days of the Elizabethan Poor Laws, when a distinction was made between the deserving and undeserving poor. Idle (or sturdy) beggars were defined as those who could work but chose not to and there was no obligation on the parish to support them. They were to be whipped through the town until they learnt the error of their ways.

We may no longer whip but we might just publish their picture online with a label around their neck saying “fake homeless”.

Where does this lead? Labelling beggars as a social menace is scapegoating. It dehumanises them and makes it easier to ignore their needs. Worse still, stripping them of their dignity and their worth, lays them open to assault.

In a world of massive fraud in high places, tax avoidance and corporate sharp practice, the beggar (homeless or not) should not have to carry the can.

Nick Pannell is the chairman of the Torbay homeless charity Friends of Factory Row.

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