‘Fake’ homeless beggars’ video emerges
It's 8.30am on the corner of Elizabeth and Latrobe streets and peak hour traffic is streaming off trains at busy Melbourne Central Station.
A man who appears to be homeless is being searched by police. They're going through his things and directing passers-by to keep moving.
It's an odd sight, but one Melbourne has seen before.
The incident took place on Monday morning this week, not long after a video emerged online accusing beggars of being "fake" and part of a "syndicate".
The footage shows a woman lying on a Coles shopping bag in a busy pedestrian alley not far from where the man was searched by officers.
When she sees the camera, she gestures for it to move away before hurriedly gathering her bags and leaving.
Moments later, in an adjacent alley, a second woman with the same bags sees the camera and immediately picks up her things and walks away.
The footage was uploaded to Reddit and received more than 680 comments. The user who shared it said they had noticed a "growing presence" or organised panhandlers in the area in the past six months.
"I know it is an organised group because I have seen them get together after finishing up at night in front of the State Library to take the tram out of the city," the user who uploaded the footage said.
The user alleges the group includes five "older Asian women", some of whom appear in the video.
News.com.au approached Victoria Police and Melbourne City Council about the footage.
The council did not wish to make a comment, claiming it was "a police matter".
A Victoria Police spokeswoman said fake beggars have been known to frequent inner Melbourne.
"While the majority of people begging in Melbourne are vulnerable and in need, there are a small number of professional beggars who target the CBD at times.
"We know this behaviour can result in the public feeling anxious or unsafe, particularly if the person begging is acting aggressively. Victoria Police continually tasks resources to enforce legislation relating to this behaviour and provide community reassurance."
The police spokeswoman said the priority for police "is to link people who are homeless or sleeping rough to the services available to them".
So-called "fake beggars" have targeted the Melbourne CBD before. It is not illegal to be homeless, but it is illegal to beg for money on the street.
In 2015, a study shared by the ABC found some professional beggars were earning up to $400 a day.
The study, conducted by the Salvation Army, found nine out of 135 beggars interviewed admitted to being professionals.
"We had one person indicate to us that he was raising in the vicinity of $300 to $400 a day or an evening and he was doing that on a regular basis," Salvation Army Major Brendan Nottle said.
"That was about six days a week, and so he saw that as a very profitable way of earning income."
The Australian reported in 2017 that undercover police were targeting those believed to be taking advantage of tourists during the Australian Open tennis tournament.
"What those people are is not homeless," Chief Police Commissioner Graham Ashton said at the time.
"They are people choosing to camp in the city because people are visiting the city at this time of year - more people around for them to shake down," he said.
In February this year, the Herald Sunrevealed Victoria Police had busted a group of fake beggars who were "pretending they live on the streets (but) they have houses and own a car".
Inspector Craig Peel told the newspaper that a group of up to 10 beggars were involved in the scam.
"This core group of people come into the city on a daily basis, and what we've identified is that they're not those in the greatest need," he said.
"So they have housing, they drive a car - it's their vehicle registered - but they come in and take resources and opportunities away from those in the greatest need."
It was reported that 33 people were charged in a two week window.
The Victorian Council of Social Services CEO Emma King told news.com.au they had "not seen any evidence to suggest" people are pretending to be homeless but "if they are … then that's an insult to Melburnians and an affront to those genuinely without a home".
Ms King said it was important the video did not "stigmatise people experiencing homelessness".
"More than 80,000 Victorians are currently waiting for public housing. Many of these are kids. This is a real crisis," she said.
"Nobody wants to be homeless. Nobody chooses a life on the streets. Every rough sleeper in Melbourne is there against their will."