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Following a recent ‘RSA Ideas: Norwich’ event, Robert Ashton FRSA explores the problems of homelessness and begging in our cities, and addresses the necessity of Fellowship involvement to tackle it.

Fellows attending the recent RSA Ideas event in Norwich were challenged to get involved with a range of projects, from mental health to mustard production, and heritage to homelessness. All prompted lively debate, but perhaps most pertinent was the pitch made by Dr Jan Sheldon, recently appointed CEO of Norwich homelessness charity St Martin’s Housing Trust.

No visitor to Norwich can miss seeing evidence of street begging and rough sleeping. But what few of us knew before Jan spoke was that the number of rough sleepers actually fell very slightly between 2016 and 2017. The help that her charity and others give is providing accommodation and support to people who would otherwise find themselves sleeping on the streets.

It was also a revelation during Jan’s talk to discover that street begging can be a lucrative occupation, with daily takings of £100 not unusual; for the determined and thick skinned, that’s £30,000 a year tax free. No wonder there are professional beggars who commute in every day to sit in city centre doorways. There is no guarantee that the person who gives you a pleading look is actually in need of the coins you kindly drop into their hat: for some, begging is a profession like any other. The fact is that not every rough sleeper begs, and not every beggar is a rough sleeper.

Regardless, it must be acknowledged that life on the streets is far from easy: the life expectancy for men is some 30 years less than for those of us with a roof over our heads, and it’s even worse for women, who die 37 years sooner when rough sleeping. Clearly, this is a problem that needs solving. It’s all too easy to make assumptions, and well intentioned attempts to help can actually hinder the professionals working with this troubled group. That’s where the Fellowship of the RSA could come in.

As Fellows of the RSA, we are uniquely placed to play a part in solving the problems of rough sleeping in our cities. Amongst us we have charity Trustees and Fellows holding senior roles in every walk of public life and business. Collectively we could, I am sure, do more. The debate we have started in Norwich will continue. Let’s see where it leads.

Robert Ashton FRSA, www.robertashton.co.uk

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