‘Traffic light beggar’ Keith on the reality of pleading with drivers to survive amid cost of living crisis
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The cost of living crisis is affecting us all, but some more than others, with people being driven to begging for money. “Traffic light beggars” weave in and out of cars on busy roads, hoping a generous person will give them change.
From domestic abuse and tragedy, to illness and mental breakdowns, Birmingham Live spoke to some of those suffering.
“Traffic light beggars” ask for money at busy traffic lights than in the city centre as it is more “effective”.
From 8am to 10pm, seven days a week, they beg for coins to help them survive.
Most work in pairs and split the change for a night in a hostel, food, or, as some admitted, heroin and crack cocaine.
Others prefer to avoid the “squabbling and arguing” and choose to beg alone.
We spent the morning with those desperately patrolling busy city junctions, desperate for a window to be lowered and change handed over.
“I’m going to lose the arm,” says David, shakily tearing a piece from his paper Starbucks cup. “If not, if sepsis gets in, I’m dead.”
He is suffering from an arm infection so severe it needed skin grafts after a “bite” while sleeping rough.
The 43-year-old added: “I just need to enjoy life until it happens.”
He is among those who partner up out “on the roads”.
He and his brother Morgan consider Bristol Road traffic lights, near McDonald's, as their "patch".
Traffic light beggars ask for money on busy roads (Image: Birmingham Live)
“It’s just really, really hard,” he continues, citing the impact of the pandemic. “Since they’ve stopped all the cash and gone contactless, you’re lucky if you can get £50.
“We have good days, bad days. It’s just this lifestyle, knowing you’ve got to get up every day and stand at that set of lights and get looked down at.
“I walk past cars and they lock their doors and wind their windows up.
“They’re sitting in traffic, haven’t moved for five minutes and they think I’m going to rob their car.
“When they give you a penny, are you helping yourself or do you value my life – another human being’s life – at a penny?”
He makes no effort to hide the fact he’s addicted to heroin and crack cocaine – and has been for the past four years.
But it has not always been that way for the former Western Power worker.
“I was working, had a house, a kid, the lot,” he says, touching on the sad death of his mother that sent him spiralling.
He speaks of being handed community protection orders, designed to stop “anti-social behaviour”, and the knock-on effect for “beggars”.
They ask drivers for spare change (Image: Birmingham Live)
“You’re not allowed into all the towns, so they’re taking away my work – my begging – so I’d then have to commit crimes to get the money.
“We’re not bad people, yeah we’re on the roads, we’ve got a cup, we’re stood there asking for your money, but what would you rather us do, wait until you leave your home then go burgle it?
“We can make up to £50 in a day between us. To make that though we need to be out all day, all hours.”
Morgan's 50-year-old friend, who didn’t give his name, said: “We keep our group small and share the money.
“I know most of the beggars in the city, but not everyone works together. We all tend to keep our circles small.”
On his troubled past, the friend said: “In my case, my mum and dad died of cancer and I ended up homeless.
“It happened in 2010 – it blew my life apart – I'm still struggling to put it all back in order.”
The pair said they spend their money on temporary accommodation, food and refreshments.
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Just a mile down the road, onto another major commuter route.
Dawn, who positions herself at the same junction every morning, said: “I'm not in a good situation at all. I was [made homeless] about a month ago, due to domestic violence in Plymouth.
“I work in this area with my [new] partner. I've been doing this for about a month – we do it together.”
On if the cost of living crisis is having a negative impact, the 38-year-old added: “It has a lot to do with it. It's making life difficult – hard to get back on my feet.”
Dawn said she gets “criticised a lot” when asking for change on the street – but is “helped by more” people overall.
She adds: “It's better to ask for money here [at traffic lights] than in city centres. It's more effective.”
When asked if she has a place to sleep, Dawn said: “I just stay here, there and everywhere. I don't like being in Washington Court because it's just full of drugs, to be honest.”
She stresses her friend, who positions himself further down the road outside the Aldi, can tell us more.
A homeless hostel for the night his only goal, Keith will “graft” all day to make £10 outside Aldi and the nearby Midlands Art Centre, otherwise known as The Mac.
Sometimes the petty change does not add up and, if he is lucky, will sleep beneath the supermarket roof.
On a bad day, he could face being “arrested by police”, verbal abuse or assault for no other reason than he has no home, he says.
Keith sits outside an Aldi asking for money (Image: Birmingham Live)
Empty-stomached, sitting on the floor inside his sleeping bag, he tells us: “You know when everyone has a bath,” he continues, taking off a sock on his left foot. “You lose your toenails, everything man. You can’t replace them, you can’t get them back.”
So what happened? He continues: “I had a mental breakdown, the legal system let me down, it ended up making me lose the plot to live. I’m still on the verge of doing it.
“You get accused of being a smackhead, a crackhead, a junkie, a rat.”
He insists he does not do drugs, adding: “No, life is hard enough as it is. Waking up every day – it’s like groundhog day, doing the same routine, 24/7.”
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