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A New Approach to Vagrancy
Why is the old system for dealing with vagrants and beggars to be abolished? How will the new regulations, which are to go into force on August 1, help these vulnerable members of society in urban areas?

Zhang Shifeng, deputy director of the Social Welfare and Social Affairs Department of the Ministry of Civil Affairs, had the answers when he was interviewed by the People's Daily.

Zhang first recognized that the extant measures had played a positive role over the years in guaranteeing basic rights for vagrants and beggars. But he pointed out that neither the current operation of the system nor its style of management are continuing to meet the real needs of today's society. To make matters worse the law is not being properly applied in some places and this was what had finally put the problem under the spotlight.

He emphasized the new voluntary nature of the regulations being brought in. Those who are following this life style will be able to apply for help at shelters established to cater for the needs of vagrants and beggars living in urban areas. This help should be immediately forthcoming. "Such applications will be made entirely on a voluntary basis," said Zhang.

In the meantime, he noted that the personal freedom of those receiving aid at the shelters would be guaranteed. They can leave the shelters at any time and the shelters must not impose any restriction on their movements.

The new regulations are sensitive to issues of equality. "Aid from the shelters is not bestowed as a favor, it is the basic right of a person living a vagrant life to obtain help," said Zhang.

"Social relief is a government responsibility so the costs should be born by government. It should be easily accessible," Zhang said. "In the meantime, shelters should be run with an open style of management."

Will the new regulations lead to some people being reluctant to leave their shelter and blocking places which should be made available for those really in need?

According to Zhang, the new social relief system is intended to offer only short-term assistance until the recipients can sort their lives out. "It aims to help vagrants and beggars overcome immediate difficulties in their life. There will be time restriction and the beneficiaries will not be able to stay on in a shelter indefinitely," he said.

"Ultimately the real answer for these people is to go back to their homes or to be protected under the social security system," Zhang said.

For instance, where it is possible to identify the head of the family in respect of an elderly or disabled person or the legal guardian of a minor, they will be contacted to come and collect them so they can take them back home and look after them.

Where it is not clear who should look after them or if household registration cannot be clearly identified, the local government where the shelter is located will help resettle them. The local government will also help resettle those who still find themselves homeless even after they return to where they are registered.

Following adoption of the new measures by the State Council (China's cabinet) at its 12th executive meeting on June 18, Ministry of Civil Affairs issued a circular within its system, requiring that all holding centers across the country should now stop receiving new admissions referred by the public security authorities under the two-decades-old "Measures for Internment and Deportation of Urban Vagrants and Beggars".

The cases of those currently in the centers will be reviewed. Anyone there without good reason will have to leave.

For those who suffer from mental deficiency and diseases and have lived there for years, the holding centers should arrange to provide them with medical treatment and advise the local government so that arrangements can be made for their resettlement.

Holding centers that have no vagrants or beggars for the time being have been urged to take down their security barriers. They should be transformed into modern shelters for the homeless in need and not look like jails.

But now there is public concern over whether the new regulations can be effectively enforced. This is also a question in the minds of the officials in charge of civil affairs. At present, the Ministry of Civil Affairs is working up the detailed rules for the implementation of the new regulations.

One issue currently being addressed by the Ministry is how exactly to define "urban vagrants and beggars having no means of livelihood."

The general principle to be followed according to Zhang is to ensure that those who really need help get help. These are the people who live as vagrants and beggars in the cities not from choice but because they are unable to make their own living. However those who have turned to vagrancy and begging as a lifestyle or even as a means of making money should be excluded.

Detailed implementation will require a robust system based on effective procedures all the way from initial application through to provision of the aid. Those in need must be assured of immediate and effective access to the help they need and to which they are entitled.

"The Ministry of Civil Affairs is also working on measures to clearly assign responsibilities for and introduce procedures in relation to the reporting of serious incidents," said Zhang adding that as a government department, the Ministry of Civil Affairs will strengthen its supervisory mechanisms.

And now the people who receive the aid are to have a voice in the supervision of the shelters, according to Zhang. A complaints procedure is to be introduced. Where they feel that a shelter has not lived up to its legal obligations they will be able to make representations to the local civil affairs authority.

If the complaint is found to be valid, the competent civil affairs authority will be expected to censure those responsible. What's more if the civil authority fails to take the necessary action, those involved can expect to face the consequences of their administrative inaction.

(China.org.cn translated by Chen Qiuping, July 4, 2003)

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