Fake beggars have been accused of running an organised “scam” in the Bay of Plenty.
The group of about five men are allegedly intimidating and abusing shoppers, and approaching people before they have even got out of their cars.
Several shop owners and members of the public told the Bay of Plenty Times the men regularly arrived at Greerton Village in a vehicle and set up outside shops to ask for money.
They had also been seen in different areas – and it “looks like they’re pooling their money”, one shop owner said.
The claims come as city councillors decided this week to consider a bylaw banning begging city-wide and rough sleeping in the CBD and retail areas.
A business owner, who has been in Greerton 15 years, believes the members of the group are not homeless.
“This is an organised ring. And they’re preying on old people. It’s a scam,” the owner said.
The group had been begging in the spot for months.
The shop owner – who did not want to be identified, fearing reprisals from the group – said they were intimidating and abusing customers.
One particular incident he saw outside his shop, involving one of the men, shocked him.
“A lady came in with her child, they hopped out of the car and he’s like ‘miss, miss have you got money?’ And she said no. She walked over to McDonald’s, bought him a decent pack of McDonald’s with a drink … gave it to him.
“She walked away – he was looking, watching. He got up and put it all in the bin. Didn’t eat a thing of it; put it all in the bin.”
The business owner said many elderly people were scared of the group.
“We don’t want that. We’ve got to clean it up.”
Retailers’ concerns were not aimed at the genuine homeless and rough sleepers, he said.
Another shop owner, of about 16 years, also believed it was a scam.
“They get dropped off, put in positions all around Greerton. We even saw morning tea being delivered to them by the same person that drops them off.”
She said a lady came into her store one day “really stressed out”.
“And she said they banged on the window of her car saying ‘have you got money? We need some money’.
“It’s just like we’re being held hostage.
“I know there are unfortunate circumstances, but this seems to be like a working party that are just having a go.”
The shop owner had been telling as many customers as possible what the group were up to.
She said the men had yelled and abused her a few times.
Tania Lewis-Rickard, who directs food charity Kai Aroha, said her organisation did not condone the “hustling” going on in Greerton.
Kai Aroha feeds the homeless in Greerton on Friday evenings.
“We personally know many of the genuine rough sleepers, for nearly two years some of them, and they are not the ones committing fraud in our community.
“They are kind people, some of them work, and we have a good relationship with them.
“They are not the ones hustling and intimidating locals and retailers. Beggars are not hustlers and hustlers are not beggars.”
Lewis-Rickard said Kai Aroha had also been taken advantage of.
“We have seen and heard the intensity of the intimidation happening on our streets, both in Greerton and in the CBD – we have heard it from the streeties, businesses and organisations across the board.
“It looks out of place – hustlers intensely going up to peoples’ car windows. We have heard from many that it appears like an organised group, we have no idea how many there are.”
Lewis-Rickard said anyone not honest about their situation was taking advantage of the city’s most vulnerable people and the charities that feed them.
“We are all being taken advantage of. We have to band together to find solutions.”
Kai Aroha believed the proposed bylaw should treat beggars and rough sleepers separately.
“The decision makers from council need to come to the street and have a talk to the ones at street level who are feeding the homeless and rough sleepers.”
A Greerton Village Community Association spokeswoman said she had not seen it happening but had been told about it and believed the reports.
The association called a meeting in mid-October with councillors, the police and council staff after retailers raised their concerns.
The spokeswoman said as a result of that meeting, councillor Terry Molloy had said he would look into the issue and had since introduced the bylaw motion before council.
On Tuesday, councillors voted in favour of Molloy’s motion to have council staff investigate a bylaw and report back on November 27.
A council staff member had also increased his presence in Greerton following the October meeting and had been moving people on and reporting issues to police, the association spokeswoman said.
“There’s a marked decline in people begging in the streets in Greerton — they are still here, but there is a decline.”
She said the council staff member had also done a good job of speaking with people on the street and putting some of them in touch with other agencies.
“It isn’t just a case of we want them off our own doorsteps, we want to try and find solutions where we can.”
Inspector Karl Wright-St Clair, Western Bay of Plenty area prevention manager, said the police met regularly with other community partners to discuss issues of homelessness and begging in the community.
“This includes the appropriate councils and the relevant social agencies, whose role is to provide assistance and support, while addressing the issues that motivate people to solicit money on the street.”
He said while begging was not an offence in Tauranga, the police would strongly encourage anyone who felt threatened or unsafe due to antisocial behaviour to notify them immediately, “so we can respond as appropriate”.
That’s how regular shopper Greg Syman describes the Greerton hustlers after they accosted him.
“If you don’t give them anything, on the way back they’re bloody rude.”
Syman, who goes to the village most mornings for a coffee, said he once had an argument with them and started asking questions.
He told them: “I’ve watched you get dropped off…”
Syman said “none of them look as though they’ve missed a feed or two” and he was sure they were not homeless.
“If you don’t speak out about it, it’s going to get worse. I find it bloody disgusting.”
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