Begging – Who’s Scamming Who?

We’re told people who beg can make £200 a day* – tax free.

That makes a lot of people very angry, particularly because the same sources tell us that ‘beggars aren’t even homeless’.

It’s a gross exaggeration, of course, specifically designed to make you angry.

But why do reported ‘facts’ like this make people so angry? Presumably it’s because those begging aren’t working hard enough for it. ‘£20 a day? – we could live with that, maybe even £50, but £200? Even I don’t earn that!’

There certainly are real problems with begging – one is that the money is unlikely to go towards addressing homelessness in any long-term constructive way, and often there is a degree of scamming and exploitation to get the money in the first place (‘I just need 40p to make a phone call / I just need £1 for a bus fare / I just need £20 to pay for a hostel bed’ etc.)

Much of the donated money therefore doesn’t help anyone get housed – in that sense it’s going down the drain. And if everyone begging on our streets were actually consuming £200 every day, that would be a lot of public money wasted.

But here’s an uncomfortable question. How much public money is spent by the public sector on homelessness every day that does not result in any long-term constructive benefit?

You’d think it would be quite easy to answer that question with some level of accuracy, after all, a lot of time and effort is spent filling in paperwork . But getting concrete figures out of some services can be anything but easy.

So let’s start with homelessness services.

Based on the some statistics that are available through the limited information given in charity annual reports, a typical rough sleeper outreach worker costs around £120 per day to employ, and will need around 10 workdays per client to get them accommodated. But most of those ‘accommodated’ will be in Nightshelter beds, so they’re still homeless. That’s not a long-term solution. So far we can’t find a charity (other than JustUs) that reports their stats with enough detail to differentiate between those being accommodated in a night shelter or hostel and those being accommodated in their own settled home, which isn’t great for anyone wanting to work out which charity is best to support.

A supported accommodation bed like in a night shelter or hostel costs about £70 per day, and if they follow the usual service pathway, people will be stuck in hostel accommodation for an average of 18 months before they actually get a home – based on these figures, that would be a cost to the taxpayer of £38000.

And this assumes that people don’t get evicted before they ‘do their time’ in the hostel system – and ignores the fact that some hostels even report moves to another hostel, hospital and even a return to sofa-surfing as ‘positive move-ons’ to their funders. Positive move-on rates are generally about 70%, so 30% are evicted and have to start the process again. So, taking this into account, the hostel system will spend something like £54000 per person who they support into an actual home. That’s a lot of money.

And that’s just a snapshot of homelessness services – what about other services dealing with homelessness?

We’ve worked with clients who have been taken to A+E in an ambulance more than 50 times a year (alright, that’s exceptional, but it does happen). That costs the NHS about £500 per time, so that’s £25000 per year. But once the person was housed, ambulance call-outs dropped to zero, so it seems fair to conclude that the lack of a home was driving these admissions.

And we’ve worked with people who have committed criminal offences just so they get prison time, because they assess a prison cell roof to be better than no roof at all. A prisoner costs the public an average of £32000 a year, so £87 per day, and that doesn’t take into account the cost for police to arrest them and the courts to try them. And once they’re released, it’s usually back to the streets, with £46 in their pocket and a 2-week wait to receive any social security benefits. The term ‘setting them up to fail’ seems particularly apt to describe this set up.

And we’ve also worked with people who have been repeatedly admitted to inpatient psychiatric wards, each time for a week or so before they were discharged back to the streets (or in one official hospital discharge form we saw, to ‘the tent by the canal’). An inpatient psychiatric bed costs around £400 per night, and it’s not uncommon for homeless people to be admitted for 6 weeks a year, but are still homeless at the end of every intervention. So that’s £16000. For many people we’ve worked with, once they’re housed, hospital admissions drop to zero.

Plenty of other sectors pay out similarly inflated amounts due to homelessness – children’s and adult’s social services, DWP, GPs, substance use services, mental health teams, domestic abuse services, daycentres etc.

And this also doesn’t take into account all the multi-agency meetings that are taken up discussing (often without any legal basis) the same homeless clients for years on end, all unthinkingly operating on the belief that those people are either fundamentally unhouse-able, or simply don’t deserve housing.

What’s more, it’s not unusual for multiple homelessness services to work with the same individual, so when the individual does get accommodated, all the services involved record it as a positive move-on to their funders, even though in some cases they never lifted a finger to help that person out.

So what we have is a system of services that actually gets paid more the more ineffective each service is, which, to put it bluntly, is a scam. It’s not that the workers themselves are in on the scam, they’re just so busy running around trying their best with inadequate resources that they don’t have the headspace to look at what they’re all doing from a big picture perspective.

A cynical Martian could even look at how we deal with homelessness and conclude that services operate to cultivate homelessness and milk service-users for as much public funding as they can get. The more ‘complex needs’ each person is, the better. In fact, the perfect homeless client would be someone who is kept alive using the merry-go-round of services for years and years without ever getting suitably housed at all, each becoming subject to a Machiavellian experiment to see just how many publicly-funded services can receive public money for delivering a service to them.

So the £200 a day we’re told some people can make begging pales in insignificance when compared to how much money is wasted in providing services to homeless people in the current system.

And just like that ‘£200’, there is nothing to show for it the next day.

This fact seems like something that would be better to get angry about.