Abour twenty years ago there was a man in Brighton who would go up to people in the street and ask them for ten pee. He cannot have been very successful as he later reduced his request to a pee. Perhaps he did not generate sufficient sympathy, being big, sturdy and obviously well-fed. Other beggars adopted different strategies. A popular one was to ask for the bus fare to Eastbourne as they had lost their return ticket, or, more daringly, the train fare to Southampton to see a dying mother. New Cross station in south London was a popular haunt. One beggar needed the fare to go to London Bridge for an appointment at Guy's Hospital; another lurked around the entrance, and, following a pace behind women with children in prams, ask people coming in the opposite direction for money to feed the child.
That sort of begging seems to have taken hold in the 1980s as the social fabric started to fray. In more recent times there has been a huge increase in beggars from Bulgaria and Romania, following their entry to the EU. This has brought begging into countries where it was unknown in modern times, including Germany and Scandinavia, where comprehensive welfare states had made it unnecessary.
People find it an irritation and embarrassment, and there is constant talk of doing something about it. But what? If people didn’t give, the beggars would go away, but obviously enough people are happy to drop a coin in their direction, for whatever reason. There are more who will buy them a sandwich or coffee. They can even perform a useful service, collecting empty bottles and claiming the deposits, or taking unwanted food sold as 3-for-the-price-of-2 offers. Others are a nuisance, when they come up to people in the street. There are rumours that they can act even more aggressively, for example, by escorting people to cashpointss and forcing them to take out money and hand it over.
There are claims that they operate as organised gangs. There is indeed evidence that some kind of mafia is in operation. Homeless people in Sweden who sell a magazine called Faktum (equivalent of The Big Issue), have been complaining that they have been forced off their regular pitches, sometimes at knifepoint, by heavies from Rumania and Bulgaria. There is certainly collaboration between the beggars – for example, in organising transport, and probably accommodation as well. There is talk about banning begging altogether in Sweden, but the fact that the best pitches - at the entrances to railway stations, shopping malls or next to busy bus stops, are now coming under control by protection rackets taking a cut of the taking points to a potential and constructive solution. The mafias are collecting a rental value which could be collected by the local authority instead, thereby applying Georgist principles to bring the whole activity under control?
All beggars within the city area would be required to purchase a license, valid for a month or two. They would get a badge with a photograph, registration number and expiry date, which they would have to display when at "work". There would be conditions which they would have to comply with – for example, they should not be allowed to approach people. If they broke the rules they would lose their licence.
What about those rental values? These arise in the busiest areas of the city. It would be necessary to designate zones where it was only permitted to beg at particular marked pitches. To use these sites, between, say, 8 am and 8 pm, an additional session permit would have to be purchased; these could be for an hour or two. Initially, the charges could be set as a rough-and-ready flat fee, but they would have to be reviewed regularly so that the charges more closely reflected the values of the different sites. Obviously a balance would have to be struck between optimising the charges and keeping the system as simple as possible. The permits might allow limited trading or other activities such as playing music.
In effect, the community would take over the role of protection currently provided by the criminal gangs, who would be forced out of business. This would be to the advantage of the beggars themselves. Given that the criminals obviously find it is worth the effort, the revenue should at least be sufficient to pay for a team of inspectors, and possibly a profit on top for the city’s coffers.