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The way we treat our poor and homeless beggars belief

A homeless Polish man is jailed for a week because he is unable to pay the £80 he was fined by a local court for begging in Castle Street in Belfast.

In the eyes of some (including obviously the court) this may seem to add up to some semblance of justice. But (and for the moment we will lay aside the humanitarian aspect) it doesn't add up to common sense.

In fact it doesn't actually add up.

As the economists would say, let's look at the sums.

A man who is homeless, penniless and devoid of any worldly possessions is arrested, taken to court (any guesses on how much that has already cost the taxpayer?) and fined £80.

An £80 which he has as much hope of finding as Fergie has of chancing upon an invite to the royal nuptials in her postbox.

Next up, inevitably, is prison where our man spends a week. This period of incarceration will have cost the state more than a couple of months' rent for a terrace house.

So a pretty hefty, lunatic price tag all round then for a process which one week on spews the same unfortunate gentleman back out to ... what?

Begging on the streets again?

A few weeks back, I wrote about the not dissimilar case of another Polish man who, finding himself homeless in weather conditions that would challenge a polar bear, broke into a house while the owner was away over Christmas. He was sentenced to six months - the sort of sentence that gets handed down to hardened criminals.

The authorities need to do something about those left out on the streets, I argued at the time.

I didn't actually have in mind rounding them up and chucking them in prison like the PSNI version of the Politburo before the Beijing Olympics.

Tellingly, if Piotr (the 58-year-old lifted in Castle Street) had had a single laminated copy of the Big Issue on him, it may have been trickier to effect arrest. Or had he been tunelessly sucking on a mouth organ.

Even more tellingly (as a friend has pointed out with some vehemence) if he'd been wearing a charity tabard, carrying a clipboard and hassling passers-by about their duty to save children by signing up for a monthly debit (most of which will go on administration costs) he'd have been home and dry.

That sort of begging isn't - apparently - real begging. Real begging applies to those poor souls who, for whatever reason, truly do not have anywhere to go in weather you wouldn't put livestock out in. It is being absolutely penniless in a place where you are so far down the pecking order you have zero chance of a job.

It is also, I imagine, sitting on a cold city street, hand outstretched, noting those big, new billboard posters advising the rest of us not to hate.

Well, I'm sorry if the ad campaigners find this offensive but I do hate. I hate waste. And I hate to see other human beings so blatantly failed by the system.

What practical use is that ad effort serving? Wouldn't the money be so much better spent directly on the people who are so often the target of hate crimes?

Wouldn't it be more constructive (as well as humane) if such funding, and a lot more besides, was channelled to organisations which provide food and shelter for the homeless?

Meanwhile, if the police really feel the need to move a few beggars on, maybe they could focus their attentions on the tabard-wearing, clip-board-carrying hordes hassling passers-by with impunity in Donegall Place - just round the corner from where poor Piotr fell foul of the law.