£3 on the streets: Reporter goes undercover after claims city is 'too tolerant' of beggars

'HERE you go," said the attractive young blonde as she dropped a pound in my cup and handed me a hotel chocolate.

"God bless you," I replied, feeling thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed – I had been homeless for ten minutes and had just received my first donation.

Armed with a familiar "hungry and homeless" cardboard sign, I had nervously taken to the streets to test Balmoral Hotel general manager Ivan Artolli's assertion that city is too "tolerant" of beggars.

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He said they make his guests "uncomfortable" and that out of 15 European cities he has worked in, Edinburgh is the worst of for begging.

That may be true, but as I found, it is certainly not because the Capital's streets are paved with spare change.

Dozens had already hurried past without giving me a second look before the young woman dropped the first coin in my cup. Two hours later, the fruits of my labour amounted to barely 3, a chocolate and a blueberry muffin.

While it may not be profitable, during my spell on the streets yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the kindness and concern showed by the people of Edinburgh. At no point was I asked to move on, or reprimanded for my activities. Other beggars left me alone.

I began by wrapping up warm, piling on the layers for what turned out, thankfully, to be a relatively mild day.

I ensured the final outer layer had a hood to hide my shame, but I was conscious of the fact that had I been on the streets for real, I would not have the luxury of a full wardrobe.

Taking up my spot outside the Balmoral, with nothing more than a flattened cardboard box for a seat, I adopted my downtrodden persona. I kept my head down, lest people guess that I was in fact well fed, well rested and pampered by the luxuries of a roof and a bed.

I had been there about 20 minutes when I was approached by a man who asked me if I had approached the council for housing. I spotted the council logo embroidered on his top.

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"I'm on the housing list," I muttered. He offered to help me find somewhere quickly. ". . . with another council," I added hastily. "I just came through on the bus to make some money. I'm not from round here."

I then clocked two policemen standing by the Duke of Wellington eyeballing me, and feared I was going to be moved on, but they soon lost interest.

According to the city council, there is no specific bylaw banning begging, but aggressive beggars can still be charged with breach of the peace or causing fear and alarm. I was in no mood to be aggressive, preferring to keep my head down and let my sign do the talking.

I decided to shift and headed up to the West End, taking up a position outside Frasers where an elderly woman handed me a pound, doubling my takings.

A middle-aged couple walked by and exchanged a glance. "They're just everywhere," said the woman.

I decided to move again and parked up outside Burger King, opposite the Balmoral, where I was approached by a homeless woman called Claire.

"The Balmoral used to be all right with us," she said. "But recently the manager has started moving us on. I'm from Fife originally. I was living with a guy that used to hit me, so I moved to Edinburgh and ended up on the streets."

I later parked up on the Waverley Steps and my cup was soon rattling with small silver and coppers. Commuters, it seems, are the most generous.

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After two hours on the streets I had collected a total of 3.24, hardly the king's ransom that some claim the beggars make on the streets. Some say it's an easy life but in reality it's no life at all. After just a couple of hours, I felt thoroughly depressed, wretched and pathetic. Imagine how it must be for those doing it for real.

All the money Mark collected will go to housing charity Shelter.

Homelessness falls further

HOMELESSNESS in Edinburgh is on track to fall further this year despite the impact of the recession.

Council figures to the end of December 2009 show homelessness is set to fall by a further 5 per cent this year, an overall reduction of 16 per cent over the past four years.

The number of homelessness assessments carried out between April and December 2009 was 3,478 which gives a projected figure of 4,637 for the rest of the year, compared with 5,495 in 2006/07.

The fall has been attributed in part to the work of the Edinburgh Homelessness Strategy. This is backed by council projects such as the Cyrenians Homelessness Prevention Service, which aims to stop people becoming homeless by helping them maintain the home they are in.

Councillor Paul Edie, Housing Leader for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: "To see homelessness on track to fall for the fourth year running shows our strategy is paying dividends.

"This Council will do everything in its power to ensure those who most need our help and support receive it."