On the streets of Geelong and Melbourne, and around the world, we often feel uncomfortable when people ask us for money.
It seems as though the number of people begging on our streets is increasing, and I'm sure many of us struggle to know how to respond to people we don't know asking us for money.
It would surprise many of us to learn that begging is a crime in Victoria, and that people can be imprisoned for up to two years if found guilty.
Criminalising begging effectively criminalises poverty. It perpetuates the marginalisation and disadvantage experienced by people who beg. It also violates the fundamental human rights of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.
The current approach disproportionately affects people whose circumstance have already denied basic necessities such as food, shelter and health care. It adds to their disadvantage by denying them even the basic right attempt to deal with their plight.
The use of imprisonment, fines and community-based orders as a response to begging fails to deal with the underlying causes of this behaviour.
These punishments ignore the reality that people who beg are among the most marginalised and isolated in society.
Begging is usually a last resort activity, engaged in to supplement income and meet subsistence needs.
Fining people for such activity exacerbates the causes that underlie it and may encourage people to engage in other illegal income supplementing activities such as shoplifting, drug dealing and prostitution.
Incarcerating people for such activity also fails to deal with underlying causes and may further jeopardise often tenuous relationships between the individual, his or her family and friends, and society generally.
The PILCH Homeless Persons Legal Clinic recently undertook a survey of people begging in the Melbourne CBD.
The survey revealed the reality of the lives of those who beg. It found that 73 per cent were long-term unemployed, more than 50 per cent had a mental illness, 23 per cent had experienced domestic or family violence and almost 90 per cent were sleeping rough or in squats, or lived in a men's refuge or rooming house.
A more effective response to begging is to deal with its causes: alleviate the disadvantage of those who beg, and particularly their need for food, shelter and health care.
A more effective response would deal with the underlying causes of begging in a way that respects human rights. We need to increase the availability of quality, secure, crisis, transitional, supported and low cost accommodation and providing income supplements to people who are homeless.
This includes those who are at risk of homelessness who have had social security payments reduced or who are cut off for reasons associated with homelessness.
We should also be increasing the availability and outreach capabilities of quality drug, alcohol and gambling addiction support services.
Law enforcement officers need to be better trained so they understand the issues underlying homelessness and begging and need to be encouraged, where appropriate, to make referrals to welfare agencies and service providers.
In modern Australia, we shouldn't be punishing people who live in poverty; they should be supported, given opportunities and empowered.
If a society is judged by how it treats its vulnerable, then the criminalisation of poverty is begging for change.
This article first appeared in the Geelong Advertiser .