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Robert Ashton FRSA shares thoughts over the interesting discussions emerging from RSA Ideas in Norwich.

Fellows attending the recent RSA Ideas event in Norwich were challenged to get involved with a range of projects, from mental health to mustard, 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 actually the number of rough sleepers fell very slightly between 2016 and 2017. The help that her charity and others provide is providing accommodation and support to people who would otherwise find themselves sleeping on the streets.

It was also a revelation 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 to sit daily in city centre doorways.

 There is no guarantee that the person who gives you that pleading look is actually in need of the coins you kindly drop into their hat. For some it is a profession like any other. The fact is that not every rough sleeper begs, and not every beggar is a rough sleeper.

That said, life on the streets is far from easy, with life expectancy for men some 30 years less than for those of us with a roof over our heads. Fellows shared their experiences of noisy drunks outside their windows at seven in the morning, and used syringes on their doorsteps. It’s all too easy to make assumptions and well intentioned attempts to help can actually hinder the professionals working with this troubled group.

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 on 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.

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