Politics

NEW DANISH LAW CRIMINALIZES BEGGING WITH MANDATORY IMPRISONMENT

Hjeml s 24 12 2012 708762axxxxHomeless person begging along Copenhagen's exclusive Strøget shopping street

The gap between the poor and wealthy has suddenly widened like no one has a memory of in Denmark, the world’s 6th wealthiest nation per-capita.

Last month, the Danish government of Lars Løkke Rasmussen passed a law at lightning speed that calls for a mandatory prison sentence of 14 days and a fine if caught begging in a way that makes people feel "uncomfortable." Its stated political agenda is to reduce the number of homeless Romani people, aka Gypsies, roaming Denmark. Even the parliamentary-majority, so-called center-left Social-democratic party endorsed the law.

On June 25th, a Swedish homeless person of Polish descent became the first person to be prosecuted by the law. But due to another Danish law, which prohibits the imprisonment of people psychologically unfit for incarceration, his case was not successfully adjudicated.

In the past week, two Rumanians, caught begging in front of Copenhagen stores, were indicted. One is a 41 year old man who had been sitting in front of an H&M fashion boutique, in the exclusive Strøget shopping street district. The other is a 29 year old man who’d been standing in front of an Irma supermarket, which caters to Copenhagen’s wealthier palates.

Never mind, as history has shown, the horrors of criminalizing being poor, and its racist undertones... but the waste of taxpayer resources and public servant time to enforce and prosecute, and then incarcerate homeless people begging, point to the irrationality of this law. Some suggest it would be much less a burden to the Danish treasury to economically/socially/psychologically help them. And it might be judged inhumane if a case were to reach the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France.

It would definitely be judged racist if homeless Danish citizens are disproportionately not prosecuted.

And what about true crime?

Marlene Granild, co-founder of Foreningen Hjemløse til Hjemløse (Association of the Homeless for the Homeless), puts it this way, translated: "This is state-sponsored criminality... If the homeless aren't allowed to beg or otherwise live on the streets, that pressure [to survive] forces them to engage in criminal behavior."

anna mee hand image 615The mayor of Copenhagen's Department of Employment and Integration, Anna Mee Allerslev, has serious issues with the law as well. "When is someone considered a beggar?” she asks, translated. “What about a street-performer? Under what [legal] interpretation [of causing public discomfort] does it become a police enforcement matter? Pure and simple, this is legal mumbo jumbo.”

One might also consider that the wealthy in Denmark do not want to see the poor, nor do they want tourists to be aware of their existence.

(1-minute video of beggars on Strøget in Copenhagen, one of Europe's longest pedestrian streets, where the world's most expensive brands are sold. The number of homeless people in Denmark has increased by 23 percent since 2009, a report from the Danish National Centre for Social Research (SFI) has shown. (from The Local)

The largest increase is found among those aged 25 to 29. Homelessness has increased 29 percent amongst the age group since just 2013.)

Among the causes is the government's reduction of taxes to the wealthiest segment and corporations, coupled with historic cutbacks in welfare, mental health and disability services, unemployment benefits along with sharp increases in housing and living costs.)
***

Norway, the world’s 3rd wealthiest country per-capita, also entertained a similar law. It even included a provision that criminalized those who gave to beggars, wording it: “complicity with beggars, including giving them transport, shelter, or supplies.”

The proposed law was neatly packaged and spun as a means to curb "human trafficking and violent gangs" by the center-right government of Erna Solberg . But this past February, pressure from the center-left parties and human rights organizations forced the government to shelve the idea.

Bent Lorentzen

Bent Lorentzen

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  • Why is it so difficult to grasp that poor people need help?

  • Since, in my opinion, this article is so important for my native Danish society to understand, i will take the liberty of sharing a Facebook discussion on it

    Wayne Cayford Racially, or ethnically, or class warfare against the poor. The law is vague and unworkable and inhumane.
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    · July 9 at 9:22pm
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    Inderanta Depari
    Inderanta Depari Well, class warfare is a European fetish.
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    · Yesterday at 6:55am
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    Robert M Sweeney
    Robert M Sweeney I don't think we should have people begging. I would handle that by having places for them to sleep and eat. As I read the article, I can understand the vagueness. Vagueness is a place where racist behavior can hide via selective enforcement. I understand that way of looking at it.

    Another argument was presented that seems like a false choice. The argument that these folks only have a choice between begging and criminal activity is unsupported as I see it. First, those who beg can also engage in crime. In fact, there are logical reasons why this might be helpful.

    To explain, people who have what they need are made uncomfortable by looking at people who don't. They don't want to give up some of "their" stuff to someone they don't know. They might invent poor-shaming reasons to justify not giving stuff. Frequently, however, they appear to effectively erase the homeless person from their awareness by not looking at them.

    So, if I wanted to commit a crime, hanging out as a beggar might be a good way to sit somewhere and be relatively invisible until the opportunity for crime presents itself. After committing a crime, running away attracts attention. Sitting does not. An agreement with a beggar could also be useful for the commission of crimes. For example, if I am a pick pocket, I could pass my lifted wallets off to the beggar by the same subtle slight of hand I use to get them originally. You think I stole from you, police stop me, I have nothing because I already handed it off.

    So, backing up, the first reason to reject the forced choice is that begging and crime can happen at the same time. Preventing begging doesn't prevent crime. The second reason that this is a false choice involves the notion that, unless mentally or physically disabled, the choice still remains to work. If one is mentally or physically disabled, being exposed in the public begging can be dangerous for you. Then again, certain mental disorders which might make one unable to hold down a job could also make for an unsafe circumstance for those walking around the beggar. Who knows that the voices are telling them?

    Obviously, the law supposed does seem similar to insistence that children must be born and yet these same people don't provide for services for those children they insist must be born. At the same time, assuming homeless people are lost puppies seems to be problematic as well.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Wow! Try telling that to the homeless family that lost everything from the medical bills to save their cancer-stricken baby
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    Robert M Sweeney
    Robert M Sweeney Some does not equal all. However, when we make plans we take into account rare but possible things. For example, I don't intend to die this year, but I still have life insurance. I have paid for this for at least 15 years and in each of those years, I have not died. This doesn't mean I don't account for the possibility of my death; which is reasonable.
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    Robert M Sweeney
    Robert M Sweeney I don't imagine you think that someone should become homeless secondary to medial bills. Supporting begging doesn't get to the root of that particular problems. Imagining that begging is a 'solution' to this problem boggles the mind.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Let's say you worked for a Detroit car manufacturer all your life, paying through the corporation and union all sorts of insurance premiums, including pension. And it all goes bust, including the pension, and how the house you bought for $500,000 now ...See More
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen The point I'm making is that every homeless person, including countless war veterans in the US, have a story for why they ended up in front of a store, begging.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Oh, and that homeless shelter, where my deceased beggar above found nighttime refuge and became an alcoholic, is run by the Salvation Army. Much of its funding comes from either directly begging while ringing bells by store entrances and by begging corporations for donations or government agencies for funds..

    Shall we also criminalize what many kids do every year, as they stand by store entrances, asking for donations to a charity or their school's orchestra?
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Write a reply...

    Bene Smith
    Bene Smith I dunno.... I may be about to say something that will make me look un-liberal, but...

    I live in a place that is experiencing an epidemic of homelessness and crime that are being fed by the steroids that are mental illness and addiction. The problems are exploding with a new meth and heroin epidemic on top of a budget crisis that has led to decriminalization approaches to theft. Zombies patrol our neighborhoods day and night, checking car doors and yards, stealing anything they can get their hands on. You cannot drive anywhere in town to run the tiniest of errands without having 20 panhandlers in your face. There are literally little groups taking over every place there is a bench to hang out and use all day, taking over bus stops, parks, sidewalks, busy intersections. It is ROUTINE to see these people fall into the roads, walk in them - or dance in the intersections. People are walking out of stores with carts of stolen food or clothing, mostly to resell for money for drugs, because the store policies are to not stop them. There are people "camping" in all of our greenbelt spaces, including right behind my house where they chopped down and debarked the trees for illegal fires. Our streams and green spaces are becoming health hazards for humans - not to mention the impact on the wildlife. Some greenbelts have been destroyed by their fires. Because of the ACLU, who I generally like but do not support in this instance, these people can't just be rousted out. They have to be given EVICTION NOTICES and have something like 2-4 weeks to vacate the illegal camp! When they leave, they leave all of their trash and start over again. Cars are being stolen at CRAZY rates - I think the record was 40-something one cold day this winter, when people were taking them to stay warm while they used until the gas ran out. These people are also driving like maniacs in their stolen cars and so car accidents are up. Businesses are getting robbed. Home invasions are way up. Murders and actual gun shoot-outs are happening.

    People are fed up. Community service patrols have been formed all over town but there's not much they can really do. Car insurance rates are jacking up. People are investing in home security systems, car security systems, dashcams, home video cameras, lighting systems - and guns. (But, heaven forbid we pay taxes!)

    Meanwhile, we are spending a ton of money on policies that do nothing but empower the problem through recycling people through this broken, crisis-oriented system that does nothing but burn everyone out and kill empathy. Our emergency responders are not available when we need them, to top it off.

    We literally have individuals who have utilized 4+ million in emergency services due to their addiction/homelessness/mental health issues leading them to overly utilize the system.

    I personally believe that living in civilized society is a right and a privilege. When your problems are unmanageable to the degree that they are destroying the very fabric of society, you no longer have the "freedom" to choose not to take your medications, beg money on the street, harass people at the store, destroy our environment, sleep on the street, use your drug of choice, use the parking garage as your toilet, etc. I would like to see us reinvest in a full continuum of mental health and addiction and housing services. I'd also like to see mental health court expanded. When folks enter the criminal justice system, I'd like to see them be funneled through mental health court, where an actual evaluation of the underlying problems is established. If someone's primary problem is criminality, they should go to jail and/or prison - with a heavy focus on reducing recidivism when possible and locking them up for life when rehabilitation is unlikely or they are deemed unsafe risks for the community.. But, if someone's criminality is being fueled by other underlying mental health or addiction services, they should be plugged in for voluntary/involuntary treatment where they best fit on the continuum ranging between permanent to long-term to short-term residential or outpatient care. That system should be flexible, so people can move up and down it as their needs dictate.

    And, I think those that have taken from our community should give back to our community as part of their rehabilitation. Amends and accountability are part of how we rebuild relationships and trust.

    I can't believe what Americans are willing to tolerate in the name of "freedom" and "no new taxes".
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    Deborah Baron
    Deborah Baron I can relate to much of what you are saying, we have similar problems here homelessness and rug issues are huge. And we have next to no resources for these folks. So what are they superposed to do. We talk about, 'What should we do?" But answers never seem to come or if we do have ideas there is ZERO money. But we are building a brand new jail! It breaks my heart to see theses people living this way but we have a housing shortage and when a place does come up from rent the rental amount is almost double what the people can make on a minimum wage job. Sadly some of the homeless people are seniors.
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    Bene Smith
    Bene Smith If we had a full continuum of help, ranging from housing to job/ed programs to treatment facilities, we could reduce the prison rates to those who actually pose risks and actually deal with the damn problems.

    We are spending a ton of money for non-solutions that empower the problems instead of healing.

    This all started with the Reagan-era dismantling of the Johnson-era community health model and has been allowed to exponentially grow in the name of "freedom" and stupid "we'll pay for cops and prisons and military but that's IT" approaches to our problems.
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    · 23 hrs
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Shall we also criminalize what many kids do every year, as they stand by store entrances, asking for donations to a charity or their school's orchestra? Or what the Salvation Army does in front of stores at Christmastime?

    Every ragged homeless person begging by a store entrance has a tragic story for why he or she is standing there. And they are so easy to dismiss and relegate to a legal process which only deepens their marginalization, having taken offense and judging them by their ragged looks, ethnic profiles etc.
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    Bene Smith
    Bene Smith There's a lot of scamming, using and exploiting of empathy happening up here in our 9th level of hell, unfortunately.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Yes, and that is true criminality. and becomes a police enforcement matter. But having worked for Copenhagen City as a mental health counselor, often at the street level, and volunteered both in DK and the USA at soup kitchens, I can guarantee you that such scamming, much of it organized, is insignificant statistically to the cases of homeless people trying to survive another horrible day. Most whom I have worked with explain how deeply humiliating it is to be standing there, at the mercy of other people's judgments.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Bene Smith, I don't want you to feel I'm blankly dismissing your concern. This year, the investigative journalism of a TV-2 team uncovered a huge scam, orchestrated by a Dane in Spain. The foundation presented itself to people as a charity seeking donations to house cancer patients and their families. None of that money went to anyone in suffering..

    Another problem, specific again to Denmark but am aware of parallels in the US, has to do with construction companies subcontracting for workers through agencies that bus people in from eastern Europe, for their cheap labor. Since DK doesn't have a minimum wage except through a union-supported contract, these non-union workers are often housed under atrocious conditions. And the agencies that employ them are notorious for withholding wages to pay relatively huge boarding charges, turning them into indentured slaves. Many of them wind up homeless in Copenhagen, and can easily be confused for the people which organized criminals bus from eastern Europe, especially Romania, to, as you say, exploit Danish empathy... and are also responsible for home burglaries and such. This unfortunately sets up an ethnically-profiled prejudice.
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    Inderanta Depari
    Inderanta Depari Yikes, you guys really need to learn from us third world countries in handling poverty. Though "handling" is an optimistic term.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Inderanta, could you flesh that out a bit. My first thought is that there is much more local community/extended family interaction on the issue, as well as microeconomics, which is deeply lacking in Denmark. But then I think of the millions of refugees from the 3rd world... unprecedented since WW II... fleeing war, climate change, and economic and racial oppression. Doesn't that indicate a serious lack of functionally managing poverty from within those countries?
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    Inderanta Depari
    Inderanta Depari I guess the main difference between countries with noticeable economic differences, is the culture mentality on how they view poverty. My educated guess is that in more economically stable countries, poverty is treated as a disease that has to be eradicated. Thus, whether one consciously admits it or not, those within poverty has been subject to the sub-human class.

    In third world countries (and yes, I cringe when using this term), the population segment in poverty (usually relative poverty) are too large for active class bigotry to be effective. It's considered just another class of society and with it, an economic lifestyle that suits that purpose. Homelessness is rarely a problem when you have slums (though never designated as such, and actual slums e.g. with no actual brick walls). And due to large population segment, there is also greater tolerance for less reputable ares with low real estate value. It's not uncommon for a high class housing complex to be adjacent with one form or another if slums i.e. we don't whine that often, as long you keep to your side of the area and I'll keep to mine. Passive mutual class bigotry if you will.

    Also income for those in poverty is also possible as many industries indirectly rely on the manpower of said individuals in poverty. An example in my country is the garbage and recycling industry. And mind you, we don't really have social welfare.

    ---

    Fleeing one's country has less to do with poverty than it does with sheer terror of one's life and their loved ones. If you have madmen butchering everyone in sight, whether that country is economically developed or undeveloped, is irrelevant. Flee or hide.
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    Bene Smith
    Bene Smith Bent, I'm fully willing to contend that your situation in Copenhagen is different than my situation in Anchorage, including but not limited to things like the dimensions of the safety nets.

    However, I think it's perfectly possible to limit these behaviors legally while allowing Girl Scouts to sell cookies in the store and the police department to have prescription pill drop-off days there and bell-ringing Santas from Salvation Army or whatever. That slippery slope argument is not working for me at all.

    I now can't go to the grocery store without being approached by a scammer with the same basic story about the same need for just a little cash for gas to get to another town because of a supposed crisis. It's a known scam. I experienced it in 1989 in Chicago. It's all over Alaska now, with this drug epidemic - and the people spinning the tales are not "ragged homeless people". They appear well groomed and dressed as well as any of us. There is video taken every day of folks who look perfectly normal stealing cars, rifling through cars, walking out of stores with armfuls of clothes or food, stealing from people's yards and homes. We can sit on our stoops and watch them patrol our neighborhood and business parking lots with their backpacks bulging as the day progresses. Beyond that, the panhandlers, generally more ragged and living in homeless culture with severe alcoholism, are at every intersection and targeting cars. Some of them make a good living at it, apparently. Others are just hanging out at busy intersections with their "friends" getting loaded. There have been a number of deaths this year due to these people getting run over by vehicles. It's really just nightmarish.

    It's not about criminalization, either. There's lots to talk about there, actually. Part of our problem is being compounded by a decriminalization law called SB91. Feel free to research it if you like. The intention is to divert people from the system by only giving people citations for thefts under a certain amount of money, DUI's, etc. This is based on the idea that introducing people to the CJS doesn't create better outcomes. And, the long view is that we could divert folks into treatment instead of jail/prison. However, the state legislature passed the law without alternatives being in place, largely as a cost-saving measure (which is costing good citizens a TON as they work to recoup stolen items plus buy items to protect themselves because they can't count on the police any more). The community patrols/neighborhood watches/private citizens and businesses generally get to watch the police drive away and leave these folks with a piece of paper when they are successful in working together to nab the thief. It's just nuts!! It's such a perfect storm that I can't help but wonder if the legislature passed the law KNOWING it would fail and it would triple down the cacophony of voices to throw these people in jail and throw away the freaking keys.

    My long comment above goes into significant detail about how we could divert from the criminal justice system into mental health, addiction, job training and housing options - using the criminal justice system as an initial point of contact for folks who are too compromised by their addictions or mental illness to make sane decisions or operate in society safely. I'm advocating for a return to a full spectrum of services outside of criminal solutions, in fact. There are something like 17 detox beds in the entire state of Alaska and few treatment beds. Mental health services are similarly insufficient - and residential, long-term options practically nonexistent.

    I want to be clear that I am not hating on people with addictions. I'm advocating for them. I don't believe that the majority of these people have criminal personalities. The PROBLEM is the addictions - and the nature of the addictions, which seem to do something to impair judgment and insight at a very extreme level. The brazenness of the theft behavior is just over the top - and we are raising our community's children now in a reality in which this is so common it is becoming the new "normal". Think about the ramifications of that.

    Two years ago I lived in a normal world. Now I live in a zombie apocalypse. It took about 2 weeks last year for me to develop a prejudice against people walking or biking in my neighborhood who were wearing BACKPACKS, previously positively regarded by me as a symbol of education.

    There is little doubt that we are enabling the problems instead of the solutions. We are enablers. We are failing to set boundaries with people who are too sick to set them with themselves. We cater to the lowest common denominator in the name of "Freedom" and "No new taxes" and "People have to WANT help". I call BS. There's nothing free about addiction - or severe untreated mental illness. We are spending a TON of money we don't have on emergency, crisis-oriented responses which keep the madness spinning. And, you just don't get to claim people have to want help when a) THERE ISN'T ANY HELP OUT THERE and b) it just isn't true. MANY people enter treatment under degrees of coercion and get better, whether it's getting written up by your employer or given an ultimatum by an angry spouse or a court order to take your medication or go to jail.



    It really is shocking what we are willing to tolerate as a society.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen OK, @Inderanta, I see what you're saying. But I wonder if cultural relativity is getting in the way.

    You mention, "...the population segment in poverty (usually relative poverty) are too large for active class bigotry to be effective." But (and I also cringe at the 3rd world terminology), what of the caste system in India, as an example. Is that not a deeply enculturated justification for bigotry, discrimination... a socioeconomic tool for birth-inherited entitlement to enslave of a whole segment of the population. I have studied the cultural/religious roots of it, down to the Vedas. But when stripped of religious mysticism, to me that's what it boils down to.

    Please forgive me if in any way I am offending you personally, or any culture you might hold dear.
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    Bent Lorentzen
    Bent Lorentzen Bene Smith, thank you for your intelligent argument.

    My point isn't to compare apples with oranges, as with our girl scout analogy. One of my 3 points has to do with how criminalizing this type of behavior, as with criminalizing marijuana use, the war on drugs, has been proven in all studies to only come back at society with exponential problems, including true organized and violent crime, and deepen the taxpayer burden.

    My other point of 3, summed up, is that any society is only as strong as its weakest links.. And with that one, I'll jump to the US Constitution's "general welfare" preamble and the "taxatng and spending" clause, which to me reflects a concern about the "weakest links" in society.

    And of course, my other point simply has to do with reducing human suffering, wherever it is found. That's not only to do with empathy or altruism. It also reflects a critically-thought out concern for the general welfare of the planet we all share, and that in our capitalistic economic system, we do not account for the negative externalities of our activities, both as consumers and producers, which the homeless person begging actually reflects mathematically.

    Even MBA study programs at Ivy League universities tend to not factor in negative externalities into the economic theory models they teach.

  • Good article, Bent. Thanks for posting it.