Begging free zone call as Belfast 'busker' makes £170 a day
Problem spiralling out of control, beat officers warn
Police officers in Belfast have urged the introduction of begging-free zones in the city centre.
Shoppers and tourists are unwittingly funding serious alcohol and drug problems by handing over their spare change to beggars, they warned.
In one case, it is understood that a repeat offender with an alcohol problem is making up to £170 a day 'busking'.
A young woman is also said to be funding her £125-a-day heroin habit through begging.
A number of officers said the problem was getting "out of control" and warned they did not have the resources to tackle it.
"I would just advise people not to give beggars their spare change," one added. "This is making the problem worse.
"I am aware of a young woman who spends £125 to £130 a day on heroin. Her drug habit is funded by shoppers who think they are helping her.
"She smokes heroin at this stage, but it's only a matter of time before she's injecting.
"I'm aware of a 'busker' who earns £170 a day in Belfast. He's got quite a record and that money goes towards alcohol."
Another officer claimed that the situation was spiralling "out of control" with "a beggar at every cash point".
"We do sometimes do clean-up operations, but the resources aren't there to deal with it every day," he explained.
"Some can be quite aggressive in asking for money, so people feel frightened into giving.
"To my knowledge, not one single person on the streets in Belfast does not have the option of a hostel or shelter, unless they've been excluded for reasons of violence.
Another police officer added: "A banning order or exclusion zone would certainly clean up the city centre.
"At the moment, our hands are tied as begging is a fairly minor offence, and it can take a crew a few hours to deal with an arrest when there are other more pressing matters to attend to."
Exclusion or dispersal zones have at times been introduced in other cities across the UK.
In London, the measure is brought in on a temporary basis to target begging, street gambling, rough sleeping and other forms of anti-social behaviour.
Belfast councillor Jim Rodgers said he believed that a similar approach should be trialled in the city centre.
He said: "Begging has become a really big problem in the city, so some sort of an exclusion zone is worth looking at, even on a trial basis, to see if it helps.
"Street begging takes away from the look of the city. We have increasing tourism in Belfast - in fact, before the year is out, we will have had 80 cruise ship visits.
"With so many beggars on the streets, it gives a very bad impression to tourists. Exclusion zones could be a good deterrent. I'm not saying it is the only answer to the problem, but it is worth examining."
In April, a family visiting Belfast from England said their trip was ruined by aggressive beggars on the street. Steve Beattie, who is originally from east Belfast, made the Easter holiday trip from Newcastle-upon-Tyne with his two young sons.
After his experience, he claimed he would think twice about coming back to his home city due to the "aggressive behaviour of foreign individuals begging on the streets".
Mr Beattie also claimed other guests staying at his hotel had reported similar incidents.
"I thought, 'This isn't the Belfast I remember'," he explained. "It certainly would put me off coming back to Belfast, especially with children."
Last year, the number of beggars in the city centre increased in the run-up to Christmas, with an influx of foreign nationals arriving solely to beg, according to the PSNI.
The Policing Board was told that during the holiday period, 126 foreign nationals came to the attention of police in Belfast city centre for begging. None of them were homeless.
According to Chief Constable George Hamilton, they stayed in multiple occupancy housing before returning to their home country after the holidays.
Police statistics showed that from October to December last year, 146 people were reported to police for begging in the city centre. Twenty were local people, four of whom were homeless. The remaining 126 were foreign nationals.