Police have charged six people over an alleged “professional begging” operation in which elderly Chinese people were flown to Melbourne on tourist visas to target passers-by in the CBD.
Officers charged the group of six Chinese nationals with begging and possessing property suspected of being the proceeds of crime during a targeted operation in the city centre on Monday and Tuesday.
A seventh man charged with the same offences was described by Acting Inspector John Travaglini as a “Caucasian male” whose activities were not linked to the group.
Begging or gathering alms is a crime in Victoria which can carry a penalty of one year in jail.
Acting Inspector Travaglini said those charged were claiming to be homeless but officers later discovered they had access to shared housing in the CBD.
He confirmed the alleged offenders were in Australia on tourist visas and a number of them had recently transferred Australian dollars into Chinese yuan.
Inspector Travaglini said while all begging was illegal, the false claims of homelessness were “deceitful” and concerning.
“You’ve got your traditional style of begging if you like, that we see on Melbourne streets and the CBD and like I said, different metropolitan communities,” he told ABC Radio Melbourne.
“Generally speaking those people are vulnerable and in need and are genuinely homeless, whereas these people have flown into the country just to make money off Melburnians’ goodwill.
“We’re a generous bunch but we’ve got a zero tolerance to that sort of behaviour.”
The group of people charged had been offered referrals to homelessness support agencies through the Salvation Army, but only one had taken up the offer, Inspector Travaglini said.
Victoria Police said it was working with the Australian Border Force, Australian Federal Police, the City of Melbourne and the Salvation Army to investigate the issue.
While the seven people were charged with offences, Inspector Travaglini said they were still free to leave the country.
A video published on Reddit two weeks ago claimed to reveal an organised “syndicate” of fake beggars in the CBD.
Police today confirmed one of the women featured in the video was among the group charged this week.
Mayor ‘gobsmacked’ by organised begging
Melbourne’s Lord Mayor, Sally Capp, said she was “gobsmacked” at the suggestion that beggars were being flown in from China on tourist visas to collect money in the CBD.
“I think it’s clear now that they are part of an organised system but that many of those people are really quite vulnerable themselves and they’ve been pulled into this situation,” she said.
“We face this complexity of people at their most vulnerable but needing to be able to take strong action and the right action to actually make a difference.”
Ms Capp said she hoped the operation would highlight the illegality of begging and discourage well-meaning people from giving money to beggars.
“It’s a really hard message to get out to caring Melburnians to say ‘please do not give to beggars’,” she said.
She urged people concerned about a homeless person to direct them to specialised support services instead of offering them cash.
Salvation Army ‘uneasy’ about elderly beggars
It is not the first time a spotlight has fallen on professional begging in Melbourne’s CBD.
A 2015 study by the Salvation Army found a small number of professional beggars were earning up to $400 a day and intimidating women and international tourists.
The organisation’s Major Brendan Nottle said the investigation was sparked when police brought a number of elderly Chinese people who had been begging to the Salvation Army.
“The sight of those people actually made me feel physically sick … just the appearance of it seemed really wrong and we were deeply concerned about their welfare,” he said.
“How could you make enough money from begging that would justify an air fare and accommodation and so forth?
“We’re really confused by the story but at the same time, just feeling really uneasy about seeing elderly people on the streets begging.”
‘We’ll be judged the same now’
Melbourne woman Chez told the ABC she had been in and out of homelessness for the past 20 years and was concerned that the alleged actions of the organised group could deepen community stigma towards homeless people.
“Once one person does one thing, we’re all put in the same basket, [under the] same umbrella,” she said.
“We’ll be judged the same now.”
Chez said she was not a fan of begging — known on the streets as “coalbiting” — and no homeless person in Melbourne needed to do it in order to survive.
“Nobody in the City of Melbourne goes hungry. No-one,” she said.
“I don’t believe in it [begging], I’ve never believed in it, I’ve never done it in my life.”