Just one in five beggars are homeless
Public being conned into giving money to ‘professionals’, Stormont committee told
Professional beggars are raking in "substantial" amounts of money by conning people into believing they are homeless, a charity has warned.
In some cases they are "colluding" to stay on the streets rather than seeking shelter.
Ricky Rowledge from the Council for the Homeless Northern Ireland said too many people are confused about who really needs help.
She was speaking during a meeting of Stormont's social development committee yesterday.
MLAs were briefed by homeless organisations and the Housing Executive following the deaths of four homeless people in Belfast in recent weeks.
Rough sleepers have become a common sight on the city's streets and Ms Rowledge warned that people need to recognise the difference between homelessness and begging.
"The vast majority of people that you see on the streets are begging, and some are professional beggars that are making substantial amounts of money," she said.
"Because people are confused as to who's in absolute need, the general public assume that all those people they see are homeless."
The committee heard around 20,000 people declare themselves to be homeless each year.
The plight of those affected has come back under the spotlight after a series of tragedies.
The latest death took place last Wednesday evening. A man, believed to be aged in his 40s, was found in a shop doorway on High Street.
Three others have died while living rough in Belfast - two deaths occurred outdoors and a third at a branch of McDonald's.
A petition urging Belfast City Council to open up empty buildings has attracted more than 26,000 signatures.
Kerry Anthony from Depaul Ireland told MLAs that less than 20% of those arrested for begging are actually homeless.
"My understanding is that we have enough beds in the city of Belfast at the moment," she said.
"It is really unfortunate that some people choose not to go back to those beds at times.
"We really have to look at ourselves as a sector and think what more can we do to ensure that our projects are accessible to people, but certainly in terms of opening additional buildings that aren't adequately furnished, adequately safe and adequately supported by professional staff wouldn't be the way to go."
Sandra Moore from the Welcome Organisation said about 1,300 people come through the drop-in centre each year.
She said some people refused to seek help.
"We have individuals who are so well catered for on the streets at the moment... two that I know of actually have, as they see it, celebrity status because they have been on television, and they will use that as a reason for not going into hostels," she said.
"So there are those that can't and those that won't access [help]."