Columnist: Begging for change and a route off our streets...

Allan Crow discusses beggars on Kirkcaldy high street
Allan Crow discusses beggars on Kirkcaldy high street

I counted at least nine folk begging along the High Street in Kirkcaldy yesterday.

They were placed barely yards apart at time, all squeezed into the town’s small pedestrianised area.

Wrapped up against the chilly rain, they avoided eye contact, and sat silently, waiting, and hoping for someone’s spare change to land in their torn paper cup.

I cannot recall seeing quite so many folk begging in town before, and that raises one very worrying question - why?

I first came to Kirkcaldy in ‘87. There were no beggars, just some truly awful buskers.

In recent years the numbers have started to grow.

The wynds have always been used as have the doorways closer to bank auto-tellers, but now we’re seeing beggars the length of the street.

Like many other towns, we’ve seen the influx of ‘organised begging’ - folk transported to town to huckle some cash before turning up a few days later to pull the same stunt in Princes Street in Edinburgh - but they weren’t the faces I saw this week.

We’re used to seeing folk asking for spare change in the wynds, and around the entrance to what was Tesco, but something has changed. The numbers are growing, and so are the faces hidden within their hoodies.

I’ve heard the story of the the guy who made over £100 a day every day before sauntering back to his cosy flat - as if this was a day job he’d pursued.

He - or a version of him -may well be out there - but the reality is much more brutal.

Life on the streets is tough and uncompromising. I don’t buy the myth that it’s an easy number to get instant cash.

On the streets you are vulnerable to the sharks, the chancers, and those who can use you in their drugs operations.

Sitting hunched up in all weathers also takes its toll emotionally, physically and mentally. It crushes the soul.

And then there’s the act of begging, of hoping a passer-by will chuck you some change rather than abuse, but never knowing which one it will be.

On holiday in Prague I came across a few beggars around the old town and the Charles Bridge. They too back themselves up against a doorway or a wall in between shops, but then they do something extraordinary.

They kneel down, lean forward on their elbows. and bow their heads, so they look directly at the pavement.

They then either cup their hands or hold out a small cup for your change.

They don’t move. They make no sound. They simply stay prone, making the smallest of appreciative gestures whenever anyone drops a few coins into their cup.

It came across as the most humble of acts - as if they were too ashamed to look people in the eye. It was the very opposite of the aggressive chancers we occasionally encounter on our streets and who deter us from then giving to those genuinely in need.

But imagine a life spent on a cobbled street in the heart of one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and all you ever saw was a procession of shoes ...