Law targets unruly beggars in Ireland

With the Celtic Tiger faltering, some say the crackdown will only add to the misery of the poor.

Criminals? A woman begged with a child on a street in Dublin, Ireland.

New restrictions on begging are being instituted here for the first time since the potato famine of the 1840s.

Although merchants say changes are needed to deal with an increasingly aggressive and organized cadre of panhandlers, critics call the measure an unnecessary criminalization of society's most vulnerable members.

"It's very much a crude, 19th-century response," says Joe Costello, a spokesman for the opposition Labor Party. "Begging generally reflects a range of social problems, and simply imposing a punitive response is not addressing these problems."

The legislation, which authorities say was meant to address a legal loophole – not the predicted increase in vagrancy caused by the faltering economy – will impose a maximum fine of €700 (about $1,000) or a month in prison for "aggressive" begging. As the changes are enacted in coming months, the Garda, or Irish national police force, will also be given new powers to order beggars to desist.

The impetus for the law came after Ireland's High Court ruled last year that the existing Vagrancy Act of 1847 – an antibegging law introduced by Britain during the Irish Potato Famine – was outdated and interfered with an individual's right to freedom of expression.

"Authorities had no legal powers to prosecute cases of begging," says a spokesperson from the Department of Justice. "The minister [of Justice Dermot Ahern] decided that this was an unacceptable situation."

Business and tourism interests lobbied the government to fill the legal lacuna. Tom Coffey, CEO of the Dublin City Business Association, says the new law is needed because members of his association have been victims of organized begging and increased levels of intimidation.

"There has been an influx of international beggars who are professional and very aggressive," he says, adding that there is also a "huge level" of associated theft.

No matter the rationale, the change comes during tougher times. Not long ago, Ireland was known as the Celtic Tiger for its booming economy. This year, according to estimates from the International Monetary Fund, the economy here will contract by 1.8 percent. Unemployment is also expected to hit 10 percent in 2009.

"We are expecting a spike in homelessness over the next year," says Dermot Kavanagh, assistant director of Merchants Quay Ireland, a Dublin-based charity that helps drug users and the homeless.

"People are losing jobs and are unable to pay rents or mortgages. The number of people we deal with is going up all the time," he says. "What's important is to provide support and help for people. I don't think a hard-line criminal justice solution is going to achieve anything in the long-term."

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which helps those in poverty, has reported that more than a quarter of its calls are from people who have never requested aid. Those seeking help include foreigners drawn to Ireland during the recent boom.

"Many workers from Eastern Europe who lost jobs in the construction sector don't have a lot of savings to fall back on, or a social network," says Roughan McNamara, with Focus Ireland, a charity that helps people it describes as "out of home."

The Department of Justice has defended the new antibegging legislation on the grounds that begging is often accompanied by intimidation and threats. Officials say the laws are not meant to target genuine cases of hardship.

Of particular concern is the use of children in begging. Announcing the legislation, Minister Ahern said it was "very distressing to witness young children effectively forced onto the streets to beg by sinister adults."

Scant hard data exist on the extent of orchestrated begging here. A spokesperson from the Garda [police] says, "as with any major city, Dublin has people begging on its streets. ... There is an element of organization involved."

Leanbh (the Gaelic word for child) is a service run by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that addresses child begging. Manager, Adriana Fechete says that the organization has no evidence of organized begging, although there have been isolated instances where Leanbh volunteers noticed adults watching over children begging.

But children are already protected by existing legislation, says Ms. Fechete. Under the Children Act of 2001, it's illegal to allow or place a child at risk through begging. Under the new legislation, parents of child beggars could be sent to jail. "Criminalizing the parents should only be used as a last resort," she says.

Of the 5,000 estimated to be homeless in Ireland at any one time, only a small percentage actually sleep on the streets, according to Focus Ireland. One such person is a man who gave his name as Francis. On a recent night, as temperatures dipped near freezing, Francis was making his bed on a cardboard mattress and dirty, damp blankets in an office doorway in Dublin's city center. Beside his bed was the slightly crumpled plastic cup he has been begging with throughout the day. Homeless for nearly 18 months, Francis says he's noticed more people begging recently.

Francis sleeps in the same spot each night, but he's on the move during the day. "The security guards come out of the shops and tell you to go away," he says, adding that he typically wanders to an area away from businesses, "but even there the police move you along."

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