Oxford police made 96 arrests for begging over 2013 and 2014, according to new Freedom of Information figures obtained by The Oxford Student.
Police conducted 63 arrests for offences related to the 1824 Vagrancy Act in 2013, and 33 in 2014. Whilst Oxford residents account for only 6.7 per cent of the Thames Valley population, Oxford begging arrests accounted for 62.7 per cent of the total begging arrests made in the Thames Valley area over the same period.
The police faced criticism from a number of student activists. Freya Turner, Chair of OUSU’s homelessness charity On Your Doorstep, commented: “I don’t feel that police arresting beggars is the best way to tackle the problem, because it doesn’t address the root causes of why they were begging; and I think it contributes to harmful stigma around such vulnerable groups in society.”
Turner, a second-year History student at Hertford College, continued: “Begging and rough sleeping are undoubtedly problems in Oxford, but this speaks to something much bigger than individual arrests by police can solve – namely that we are facing a massive housing crisis in Oxford, which is an increasingly unaffordable city.”
According to a 2011 government report, Oxford has the fourth highest number of rough sleepers in the country. The average home in Oxford costs 11.3 times more than local average earnings, making Oxford the least affordable city in the UK.
A spokesperson for Oxford Homeless Pathways said they “would never condone the practice of arresting beggars without any further follow up”, and that arrests were generally used as a “last resort”.
Lesley Dewhurst, Chief Executive at the homelessness charity, continued: “We do know that the police are working closely with the City Council and the Street Outreach Team on this issue. There is a specific PC who is assigned to working with homeless people (and he is backed up by colleagues who also know the client group when he is absent).
“The practice they are trained to follow is to offer support to those individuals that they meet who are begging. I believe that arrest would be the last resort and a lot of other steps would be taken first – e.g. friendly chat, requirement to move on, and warning.”
One second-year History student with close family experience of homelessness described the practice of arresting rough sleepers for begging as “inhumane” and “humiliating”.
The student, who wished not to be named due to the sensitive nature of her comment, continued: “When my mother was homeless the police treated her like she wasn’t even human. That was back in the 1970s, and I hoped things had improved since then. But I think these figures confirm what a lot of us have suspected for a long time – that police in Oxford and elsewhere view beggars as a problem that need to be removed, rather than a vulnerable minority that need to be helped.”
According to The Guardian, begging prosecutions “rocketed” by 70 per cent during 2013, a development it blamed on government cuts to support services.
London-based homelessness charity Thames Reach, however, said that arresting beggars helps drug addicts reach treatment. Speaking to the Evening Standard in June 2014, spokesperson Jeremy Swain described arresting beggars as part of a “co-ordinated approach” between police, local authorities and charities.
Katherine Backler, the outgoing President of the Society of St Vincent de Paul’s Oxford branch, a Catholic homelessness charity, stated: “Arresting beggars does not address the root causes of homelessness, but I doubt it is intended to: that is the job of policy makers and not of the police service on their beat.”
Backler, a third-year Classics student, continued: “If we ourselves are keen to see an end to begging, we should give more, and give in ways that will affect structural change: for example, by giving our time to speak to homeless people and those who serve them … and by supporting affordable housing initiatives.”
Thames Valley Police did not respond to our request for comment.