Wednesday, 22 May 2024

‘I drove around the UK city where people risk their lives begging in traffic’

The sight of people begging on the streets is sadly all too common in many UK cities, but there is a worrying rise in men and women risking their lives, walking into oncoming traffic to ask motorists for money.

Across Birmingham city centre, lone individuals and sometimes seemingly coordinated groups of beggars, approach drivers who have stopped at traffic lights. photographed the phenomenon in recent weeks in Britain’s second city. The person taking these pictures was in the passenger seat.

As a resident and driver in Birmingham I have become uncomfortably numb to the sight of people who seem to have fallen through the net who now try to get money from passing motorists.

Often they out into oncoming traffic with no regard for the potential harm they could come to. They usually don’t leave the highway until the lights change, meaning they can become dangerously marooned between moving cars and lorries.

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A sad scene then follows as the beggar proceeds along the line of waiting vehicles offering a smile or a word and a shake of their paper cup to drivers in the hope of receiving a reward.

Some kind-hearted motorists make offerings of food out of the window or a drink, others I have seen hand over cash, a commodity increasingly hard to come by in today’s card and phone payment society.

In the last 10 years I have called Birmingham home at various points and when I first moved to there I did not see begging at traffic lights anywhere in the city.

There was still a homeless problem, but that too seems to have increased, or at least become more visible, with instances of seeing men and women comatose on a pavement now commonplace.

As these photographs show, the people doing the begging at traffic lights are usually men, but I have seen women do it too. Sometimes they have a dog with them.

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In one instance during our drive around Birmingham, a man appeared to have passed out by railings just inches from a busy lane of traffic.

Obviously, these people have fallen on some very hard times to attempt this practice and they seem to be out in all weathers depressingly marching between the cars pumping out exhaust fumes.

The police told us they try to speak to those involved to “establish the reasons for their dangerous and illegal behaviour” and acknowledged the beggars are “putting their own safety at risk by going out into the road and towards on-coming traffic”.

The Salvation Army, often at the sharp end of dealing with homelessness, said money for treatment and addiction centres had been “severely eroded by a decade of funding cuts”.

In a statement Captain Dr Will Pearson, a practising GP and Assistant Territorial Addictions Officer for The Salvation Army, said: “We understand how being approached by someone in such a desperate situation is unsettling but behind their behaviour is unbearable pain and trauma that has led them to self-medicate with drugs as a last resort.

“We know from the work we do to help people overcome their harmful substance use that nobody chooses to live like this; rather, they are forced to.”

Captain Pearson added: “Our research has found that over the last decade, the provision of addiction treatment and support services has been severely eroded by a decade of funding cuts, making it too difficult for people to access the help they need.”

A spokesperson for West Midlands Police said the force did not “underestimate” the “nuisance” of roadside beggars and windscreen washers.

They said: “We carry out targeted police operations to catch those who persistently pester drivers for cash and look to pursue court action if appropriate.

“However, we also try to speak to those involved to establish the reasons for their dangerous and illegal behaviour to see if we can do anything to stop this happening.

“They are putting their own safety at risk by going out into the road and towards on-coming traffic and we want to steer them away from such actions.

“We are working with our partners to address these issues but we also need the help of the public by not giving these beggars money and deterring them from acting as windscreen washers.” approached Birmingham City Council for comment but the organisation did not provide any.

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