Begging as an attribute of the West

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I suppose I was 20. Not that I am past my prime now, with grandchildren racing in the shadow of an apple tree thriving underneath my window, begonias on the windowsill and a duck roasting quietly in the oven. Anyway, I was 20. Third year in college, great expectations, naiveness, etc. I was in America. How incredible that even after the recent dark ages across the Atlantic (paranoic war on terrorism, Iraq, economic crisis, shootings in schools) those tree words still carry an aura of magic. The first glimpse at New York's Manhattan, skyscrapers, astounding feeling that nobody cares about you, therefore there is no need to feel uberimportant, black people, enormous traffic, over air-conditioned "Greyhound" busses, "Amtrak" trains, industrial suburbs of New Jersey, a guy with a python across his shoulders on the bus stop in Camden, a kid selling something colorful in a dinger, a street preacher moralizing about Jesus and Apocalypse and a vagabond shoving a tattered "Starbucks" cup into my face. No change, no change!

If you arrive to a Western country from Central/Eastern Europe, panhandling mostly leaves you outraged, the main difference being the fact that in Central/Eastern Europe you could rarely see fit young men and women, physically capable of working, begging on the streets. If you boarded a plane to Lithuania, you would mainly encounter old weary women on their knees asking for change besides Baroque churches. Throughout my explorations to the USA, the UK, France, Ireland, Italy and Spain I've never seen elderly women begging. Honestly - don't remember such an occurrence. Beggars in the West are fit and well capable of working. Men panhandling besides ATMs, restaurants, on Ha'penny Bridge, besides cars stuck in traffic... Have you noticed that the vast majority of them have hands and feet? Therefore I'm convinced they are in the streets not because they can't get a job or are incapable of working, but because they have chosen panhandling as a style of life.

I encountered panhandlers for the first time when I was walking towards underground station in Philly, USA. At first I couldn't even get - what's the problem? Why so much anger?

Over the past two and a half years that I'd spent in Dublin, I came to conclusion that panhandlers in this country are mainly junkies. Not as angry as in the States, but typically all young. Ironically, quite often they find shelter underneath or besides signs "Staff wanted".

I went to the ATM to withdraw some cash a few weeks ago, but some guy was in my way blocking the access. He apologized and placed himself underneath the money machine.
"Nice day", he said.
"I wonder if for long", added.
"Indeed", I answered.
"Good for you, I'm sure you can enjoy it", he muttered in a voice rehearsed for zillions of times.
"Have you got any spare change?" he asked.
"Sorry", I replied.

Panhandling besides ATMs in Ireland is a tremendously common sight. As a matter of fact, panhandling in general is acutely popular over here. Some say because of the widening gap between the poor and the rich - while some get more and more prosperous others become even more poverty-stricken. Sometimes it is the case, although knowing for a fact that dozens of able-bodied Lithuanians bulldozed their way to various benefits from the Celtic Tiger (on top of working 40, 50 or 60 hour weeks), I tend to think that panhandling nowadays for many has become a kind of occupation - despite vast opportunities on the job market. Although Irish still can't compare to the impeccability of the skills needed to, let's say, Italians. During my two-week-long stay in Italy this spring I learned of such numerous ways of mooching money that I could kick start a new career. I.e. distribute a flyer with a picture of a small girl on the train. She has one month to live. This is my daughter. Please help. I gave a euro - damn it, I couldn't look at that picture without apathy.

As of the 1st of January 2007 the number of those, who day in and day out live with a hand reaching out for small change, has even increased over here. New citizens of the expanded EU flooded the streets. But instead of IT professionals and laborers of mushroom factories, it was an army of gaudy skirts with a marching band of accordions. Until now if you ever met an Irish child on the streets of Dublin, it was a busker with a bucket in front. If you hit the streets of Dublin today, you encounter dozens of children, 10-year-olds and younger, with a hand reaching out for change (what a connotation of the word!). "Spare some change, madam" become the first English words they learn.

Once a Dutch woman whom I got to know while working in the shop, stressed to me that begging in the street with children is illegal in the Netherlands. In fact, during a couple of weekends spent over there, I had never encountered beggars. Just a quick glance of a tourist, which, obviously, could as well be quite wrong. During a few days spent in Denmark I was approached by a beggar only once. A friend of mine gave him a cigarette.

A couple of months ago a young beggar won his High Court claim that a law outlawing begging in a public place is unconstitutional because it excessively interferes with his right of freedom of expression. I guess, the expression of freedom can be interpreted in many ways nowadays.

Emigrants from Romania and Bulgaria risk being stopped from entering Ireland until the end of next year because of entry restrictions on low-skilled workers. In order to work in Ireland, they need work permits. Just 106 work permits were granted to Romanians this year and only 33 workers from Bulgaria were given access.

If I went for a stroll in certain areas of Dublin, I can bet a bottle of good wine, that in a few hours I could calculate more than a hundred of gaudy skirts or their mustached cavaliers. No, not those with accordions in their hands. And not those photographing the architecture of Dublin. But those exhibiting their freedom of expression. Because there can be no embargos for it. On the other hand, I could probably still calculate more pahnandling Irish, staying on the streets because they have chosen to. Despite the fact that there are numerous signs in town saying "staff needed".

Freedom lulled thousands of Lithuanians to Ireland like honey does the bees, while the Irish, allured by it, hit the streets. Isn't it ironic?

 
This Post has 15 Comments Add your own!
Christophe - December 6, 2007 at 12:01 PM

Can you honestly say it was "freedom" that attracted the wave of accession migrants to Ireland? I find that hard to believe, "freedom" in their own country may have allowed them to leave but I think economic necessity drove them to the likes of Ireland, UK & Sweden...

That's my impression but it's open to correction.

Furthermore, moving onto your final impression, I think it's a whopping generalisation and a little trite to end with the Irish are choosing the streets! Vancouver for example has just as rich a panhandling culture as Dublin, I would venture to say it is alot worse... Hell, I lived in Nantes in France, where large gentleman would transport from the other side of the street to get in your face and enquire in aggressive tones whether you had a ten franc piece for them... However, I would not be moved to make such whopping generalisations about the French or Canadians on that basis.

Your post title strikes somewhat closer to the mark for my money, begging is endemic in the West because the social support systems make it seem just a bit more lucrative than regular minimum wage. There are drug problems associated as well, there are also issues of mental health (it's not always about 2 hands and 2 feet) but simply put, you are starting to ask fundamental questions about whether a social safety net is appropriate... I'd tend to pose the question differently, is what is currently being offered adequate? The part time beggars may go home at the end of their shift but there are still about 2000 people who are actually homeless in Dublin I think, that figure may relate to the whole of Ireland, I'm not sure. The question is, given the supposed wealth that is abundant, how on earth can that be appropriate?

Simple facts of the matter in my estimation, is that our current system requires social pariah, detritus in the gutter to make the large population mass in the centre carry on with drudgery and fundamentally unrewarding jobs.

It is the carrot and stick approach of capitalism.

The carrot, we can all be millionaires! (Or can we?)

The stick, if you don't tow the line, you will be oastricised and left to fend for yourself.

There are no easy answers here.

That's why I think it's important to make sure the observations anyone offers in this problematic area are made in a broader context.

There's a big picture here, more than just a guy sitting under an ATM.

Diarmo - December 10, 2007 at 8:27 PM

There are too many Gypsies/Romas begging in Dublin..they are their own worst enemy! What kind of race puts their old, frail and psychically handicapped people to beg on the street! Lets not get PC about it..they oppress themselves by their choices! and yes not all of them are old and frail some of them are young and able! Such stupidity! and poor Romania..many people here think Romanians=Gypsies! They are a large MINORITY in that and oher European countries!

Christophe - December 10, 2007 at 10:40 PM

Yeah. You see that's the kind of comment you encourage with this sort of approach to the topic.

Diarmo, would you kindly step inside the social reality of the planet for a second please, you'd start to understand it's not a motivation thing on either side... It goes far deeper than that...

Diarmo - December 12, 2007 at 9:37 PM

snore!zzzzzzz!

Christophe - December 13, 2007 at 10:11 AM

Ok...

Primal Sneeze - December 13, 2007 at 7:12 PM

Ah no, Lina! You had to remind me of those damned accordion players. The first four bars of one song player over and over again and prefaced with the one word they know - "hello".

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