Unfolding plans 115 – One in five beggars aren’t homeless

I haven’t had a good rant about statistics for a while but here we go again.  Someone has taken some numbers and extrapolated them to create a wildly imaginative story.  It’s like Jurassic Park, creating a dinosaur from a tiny piece of DNA.

According to the BBC ‘Fewer than twenty per cent of people arrested for begging on the streets of England and Wales are homeless.’ The figures come from a Freedom of Information request made to the police forces with about three quarters of them responding.

The implication of the story is clear but in case you missed it the news reporters have repeated it over and over again.  The other eighty per cent are scroungers and criminals, organised by ruthless gangs to extract money from the unwary public.

Oh dear.  It’s a good story that is bound to make people gag on their breakfast cereal yet there is so much missing that it is impossible to tell if the interpretation that the media have put on it is true.  Here are a few of the things that need unpicking.

We have no definition of homeless to go on.  Does the word imply people who are sleeping rough, or who are sleeping in shelters or who have to make do with the floor in a friends flat?  Before we can verify the one in five figure we need to be clear of the definition.

Also we have no idea how many of the people arrested have been arrested on multiple occasions.  There may be serial beggars who really are a nuisance which the police have taken into custody on several occasions only to let them out on the streets to sin again.  If this is true (I have no way of knowing at this stage) it would skew the figures in favour of the criminal element as opposed to the genuinely down trodden.

There is bound to be an element of sentiment. Police are humans too and will not be blind to the plight of their fellow creatures.  It is inevitable, though again I have no evidence to back this, that they are more likely to arrest those people who they think are swinging the lead rather than those who are genuinely in need.  Those people who are struggling at the bottom end of society or those who can fake it are, in my opinion much less likely to have their collar felt than the more professional mendicants.

Also, the opposite of homeless may not be gang member.  There may be plenty of reasons what someone may resort to asking for money though they still have a roof over their heads.  Perhaps they’ve been mugged.  Perhaps they got drunk and spent their bus fare home.  Perhaps they are under threat of foreclosure but still have somewhere to go.  Perhaps they are suffering from some illness that makes it difficult to find other ways of attracting income.

I’m sure there are more but hopefully you get my point.  Translating complicated statistics into simple and simplistic stories is a very dangerous thing to do.  It creates a potential falsehood into a fact and gives credence to stories which are at best unproven.

Reader beware.

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