As I walked along my local high street yesterday, I heard two women discussing a beggar on the side of the road. "I'm not going to give him anything, it's all a con. They've got loads of money," one of them said.
With rough sleeping increasing in many parts of the country, this woman's view is becoming more common. It's easier to believe that the person you pass on the street is on the take than to think about the hardship they might really be facing.
It's also a belief which many councils and parts of the media encourage. We've all read the stories about the beggars who earn thousands of pounds from asking for spare cash, only to then go home to plush apartments. The fact that most of these stories are wildly exaggerated, if true at all, doesn't matter. The headlines stick in people's minds.
— Notts TV News (@Notts_TVNews) September 28, 2016
For the councils who are more worried about the bad impression rough sleepers give of the town, rather than actually finding permanent housing for them, the idea that they are frauds is a myth they are happy to promote. Take Nottingham city council, which produced a series of adverts which urged people not to give money to beggars. One said: "Begging: Watch your money go to a fraud. Beggars aren't what they seem." Another warned that begging funds the misuse of drugs and showed a man smoking a roll up with the words "Begging: Watch your money go up in smoke."
The adverts have just been banned by the advertising watchdog for "reinforcing negative stereotypes" of vulnerable people, but the damage has already been done. People will remember those images.
The argument that it is better to donate to a homeless charity than give directly to rough sleepers is an understandable one, but you don't make that point by demonising the people the money is intended to help. It's becoming the norm to believe that the most vulnerable people in society are the cause of their own problems. It's not just the homeless, it's also people on benefits, single mums, and immigrants who are regularly demonised.
Nottingham's begging posters are similar to the benefit fraud adverts used by many councils around the country. One London council released one showing a young woman holding up a sign saying "Fined". Underneath it said: "And she thought she'd never be caught". Another told people to "Spill the beans on benefit fraud" and warned that "it's your money they're stealing." Add to this the stories in the press about people sponging of the state and the rhetoric from politicians about 'scroungers and strivers', and it's not hard to see why attitudes around welfare have become so negative.
See also the response to migrants and refugees dying trying to get to Europe. Whenever a new story breaks about people drowning in the Mediterranean or being killed as they try to get from Calais to the UK, you can guarantee that the comments section beneath the article will be full of people suggesting they shouldn't have made the crossing in the first place or that they are all terrorists. Just look at replies to a tweet from the BBC reporting that a man had been killed when migrants tried to enter the Channel Tunnel.
A man has been killed as at least 1,500 migrants tried to enter the Channel Tunnel in Calais on Tuesday night... http://t.co/sUbkn6dRcT— BBC Politics (@BBCPolitics) 29 July 2015
"They should start shooting them," one said.
"Starving migrants? They don't look starving to me, the one on the right looks borderline obese," said another.
Instead of looking for ways to tackle the problems which cause people to suffer, we are now more likely to look for reasons to blame them for their circumstances. A mother struggling to feed her family is told she shouldn't have had kids if she couldn't afford them. A father whose children have drowned while fleeing a war torn country is told he shouldn't have put them at risk by making the crossing. A care leaver who has ended up on the streets is told that it's their drug habit which has caused their problems.
Now, with Labour scrambling around trying to find a way to win back voters, you are just as likely to hear someone on the left talking about cutting back benefits or the need to limit immigration as you are a Conservative or right-wing paper. Instead of challenging misconceptions, politicians are pandering to them. And, on almost a daily basis, we hear of another hate attack on an immigrant or a homeless person being kicked or beaten as they sleep.
Vulnerable people are not just being let down by our politicians, they are being demonised by them.
Natalie Bloomer is a journalist for Politics.co.uk
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