Life in Europe: Observing Beggars
Over the next thirteen years I had a chance to observe the changes in the street population of beggars in Poland and to check out the situation in Sofia, Belgrade, and Bucharest.
In Warsaw ’91 the most visible population of beggars were the Romanian Gypsies with a sprinkling of old-age pensioners whose remittances had been reduced to pennies per month by inflation (NOT a figure of speech) and had become desperate enough to beg for money for bread. Not as many of the latter as you might expect, Poland still has an intact family structure, not many old people are kicked out to starve.
Paradoxically, it may have been the very inefficiency of the communist state in providing social welfare services that kept Poles reliant on kinship networks. During the 80s when food shops were largely empty. lots of people were kept going by the fact that most families have relatives in the countryside.
What was almost ubiquitous in trams, restaurants (until kicked out) and waiting areas, were young, filthy Gypsy kids who would come up to you and start stroking your arm in a gesture of supplication whining “drogi panie” (dear sir). It was a form of extortion actually – give me some money or I’ll touch you some more.
Another grift (technically busking rather than begging) was for Gypsy kids to hop on a train or tram between stations, risking that the ticket checkers would catch them, and play the accordion for spare change. Since the only tune they knew between them appeared to be, “Oh How We Danced on the Night We Were Wed” I used to give them some change and ask them to please learn another tune. A few years later I saw a Gypsy kid with an accordion in Belgrade, playing… guess what.
In the early 90s during one very cold winter, Polish railway authorities in Warsaw let Gypsy families sleep in the large waiting room of the East Station. (Sleeping in stations is tolerated for homeless people.) A year later they were still there, several hundred of them, setting up housekeeping and cooking. Exasperated, the railroad took their room back and the Gypsies moved outside into an open area and set up a shantytown by the Wisla river, apparently not much inconvenienced at all.
What’s interesting now is that the Gypsies are still there (Romanian Gypsies, Polish Gypsies look a bit different) and their women are still hanging around the streets – but they’re not begging as much. Now they offer to tell fortunes. Even the women lying on the sidewalk with children (popularly believed to be drugged, no normal kid is going to lie that still for that long) and begging piteously are far fewer now. In the central Warsaw area, where I live, the beggars now seem to be largely Polish and genuinely handicapped. It makes me wonder what has happened in the Gypsy community? What other sources of income have they found? It’s nearly impossible to find out anything reliable about that closed culture. They will work, if it’s seasonal and doesn’t tie them down for long. They can do anything with horses, many are first-rate mechanics and some are gifted musicians.
In 1996 I moved to Bulgaria for six months, right at the beginning of a megainflation. Bulgaria was (and still is, though it's much better) very much poorer than Poland, however – no beggars. There was some busking, including a lovely white-haired lady who stood in the underground passage near the university and sang classical tunes like an angel but nobody holding up signs with a tale of woe or displaying leg stumps.
There are plenty of Gypsies in Bulgaria, I believe the second highest percentage of population after Rumania, but the ones I saw were working construction not begging. When I asked I was told that “We are a proud people.” and that Bulgarians do not beg. Perhaps as a consequence, Bulgarians are not quite as ready to give alms. I was told that tipping is rather foreign to them as well.
Also interestingly (for those who insist that poverty is the cause of alcoholism): though the country was awash in liquor; perfectly decent wine for a dollar a bottle (even cheaper if you went to street corner kiosks and filled your pop bottles from their barrel), good vodka and rakia, that remained dirt cheap while food was becoming an expensive luxury, I saw precisely one case of public drunkenness in six months. I’m afraid that in Warsaw you’d expect to see that just walking across town.
In fact, now that I recall , at a party once I remember people looking at me funny while I was swilling vodka the way they taught me in Poland.
On the way to Bulgaria I stopped in Bucharest and spent four hours in the general area of the railway station. The experience was enough to make one seriously think about cashing in your ticket and joining a religious order. The place
was full of ragged, filthy children begging, sniffing glue in corners and sometimes displaying hideous orthopedic deformities. All around the station the manhole covers in the streets were missing. The children slept in the tunnels underneath.
I am what I describe as a “luke-warm” opponent of the death penalty, meaning that I seen nothing sacred about the lives of these scumbags, but I get nervous about giving the state the power to commit judicial murder. Now I’ll tell you, I ‘m
GLAD they killed that bastard Ceaucescu, I’m only sorry it took such a short time.
On my last few trips to Bucharest, the child beggars were nowhere in evidence. I like to think they're being cared for somewhere, but...
Belgrade was a different story, they had plenty of beggars but few women (an exception that I remember was a woman with half of her face badly burned) and few children that I recall. The major category of beggars on the street was men with one or two leg amputations. I'm embarrassed to tell you how long it took me to figure out that this was all about land mines.
When I asked my students about them I was told that beggars in Belgrade are organized and have a “king” who extracts a huge percentage of their take.
So what do I do about beggars? Being an American, I at first found it as uncomfortable to give to beggars as to look at them. And once decided to give, how much and to whom? Well, I took a tip from Thomas Jefferson as told in Albert J Nock’s "Mr. Jefferson". Jefferson apparently had never seen quite so many in his life as he did in France. His first response was to hand out money until he was tapped out early every day. He ultimately had to figure a daily alms budget and give it away on a first-come-first-served basis.
Many countries in Europe (and increasingly in the US I've noticed) have what I call an inconveniently valued currency. By that I mean that in a normal day of spending pocket money you tend to wind up with an inconvenient bulk of coins. Beggars benefit from this. Pocket change I dispersed in one and two zloty amounts (about $.25-.50) First choice, amputees, after that women with children – though I try to avoid Gypsies. “What?” you say outraged. “Could this be racial profiling?” Yeah, ‘fraid so. Sorry, I want to help someone who is down on their luck, not support a culture which despises mine and regards me as a mark. Besides, I’ve observed that their kids now have new, store-bought clothes, not castoffs.
So why do I want to? I have a conservative acquaintance who argues that building true civility there requires that they sweep the beggars off the streets. Call it one in the eye for welfare-statist hypocrisy. Voting other people’s money is not generosity any more than sending other men to war is courage. I wonder if it wouldn’t do some people some good to realize that if they REALLY wish the hungry and homeless to be fed, clothed and housed they have to take personal responsibility for a little wealth-transfer, dip into their own pockets and make moral decisions concerning the worthiness of the objects of their all-embracing compassion.
What I’ve observed of beggars in a few different countries over the past decade has led me to this conclusion: the amount of begging found in any country will depend mostly on three things; the local tolerance for beggars, the willingness of the population to give alms, and the depth to which a person will sink before considering begging as a means of survival. (By tolerance, I mean for example, how do people react to having beggars underfoot in public places such as stairways to underground passages beneath major intersections.)
That last one can be tricky. It seems to me that a man too proud to beg might consider trying to take your money before he’ll allow himself to ask for some of it.
The health of the local economy seems to be one of the least important factors. Bulgaria, poorer than Poland by far, had almost no beggars whereas in Poland you can encounter students panhandling money to buy beer*. (This can only be explained by the relative willingness of the local population to give to beggars. Pride may explain why a Bulgarian won’t beg but to a Gypsy, your opinion of him means absolutely nothing. ) In Serbia, beggars have to display pretty obvious deformities to get any sympathy.
Questions arise in my mind. Where do these people live? How much do they really make? (Rumors of rich beggars have been around for a while.) Does anybody who has fallen into begging ever get out? What happens to them when they get old? Why aren’t the Gypsies in Warsaw begging so much anymore?
Once I might have been tempted to make this the subject of fieldwork and it certainly seems like the kind of thing you could talk some liberal institution out of some grant money for, though they might not like what I’ve had to say on the subject. However, right now I’ve got a life to get on with so when I'm in town I just dig out some more of that annoying Polish coinage and thank God it’s not me sitting on the sidewalk there.
* In the Old Town of Warsaw many of them are from the school of theater who busk as clever mimes. My favorite were a student got up as the Tin Woodman who would stand perfectly still, then bow with a creaky groan when you put coins in his cup. My son and other children liked to see this - which was part of the point I guess. Another student used to sit snoozing against a wall with a sign that read, "I am lazy and need money to buy beer."