Begging-free zones worth consideration
Anyone taking a walk around Belfast city centre cannot help but notice the number of buskers and people begging on street corners. The problem has become so severe that police now want a beggar-free zone established.
While it could be said that genuine buskers add a bit of atmosphere to the city's streets, it is clear that in many cases the performances are simply a cover for begging as the musical talent on offer is minimal.
In other instances, there is no pretence, just straightforward requests for money.
The experience of police officers who patrol the city centre puts the problem in perspective. One repeat offender is earning up to £170 a day 'busking' to feed his alcohol dependency, and another girl rakes in £125 a day begging to pay for her heroin habit.
Those are quite astonishing amounts of money, and it is little wonder that organised begging - carried out by an influx of foreign nationals - is prevalent at busy times in the city. Last Christmas, more than 120 foreigners were reported to police for this offence.
Given the rewards and the fact that begging is regarded by the authorities as a minor crime, it is clear that the prospect of being arrested or going to court is no deterrent to those for whom the streets are paved with gold.
Many people, confronted by beggars on the street, believe they are homeless and that their donations will help them find shelter or a decent meal. They look at the individual, often slumped in a doorway, and think that they are doing the right thing by dropping a few coins into their cups or tins.
But according to police, the only people excluded from finding a bed in a hostel or shelter are those who have been barred for bad behaviour on previous occasions.
Belfast is a city which has been widely praised by tourist guides as a must-see destination and a good value location for short stays.
It has also become an increasingly popular stop-off point for the big cruise lines, with 80 ships due to dock in the city this year alone.
The sight of beggars on the street - some of them quite persistent in their demands for money - is bound to be a turn-off for those visitors, and the problem could have an impact on the economy as beggars congregate around popular night spots, restaurants and theatres.
Trialling a beggar-free zone seems a sound idea as police have more pressing problems to deal with.