Back when I lived in Grenoble in France you used to see a lot of people begging on the streets, sometimes the lone old “pochtron” with his dog, pockmarked face and vinegary-wine smell, sometime a group of punks with their dogs and their tattoos and their piercings (otherwise known as “les travelers”, kids who moved from city to city, living in squats and abandoned buildings until they got bored of the lifestyle). But often you would see women begging in the streets, holding their babies. We called then “les gitans”, gypsies, Romanis, those people who would roam the land in caravans, pitch up camp anywhere and everywhere and move on afterwards. People who have never really had the best reputation anywhere that they stop. Not that I would judge anyway. I always liked the romantic idea of living the gypsy lifestyle, picking up camp and moving along to the next location, palm reading and dancing and just being free. I know, I know, I read too many novels and watch too many old movies (Golden Earrings being one of them). I used to read a lot of Enid Blyton when I was a child, and there was often a gypsy camp portrayed in the book, often with one bad apple who was always caught, and the rest of the camp were full of wonderful people. I don’t even know if these people were really gypsies or not, we just all used to call them that. Probably because they would move on to other cities when they felt like it, they were not here for good. Fleeting begging?
Back in France, these people that we would call “gypsies” would beg on the streets, always holding a tiny baby and maybe pulling another little child along with them, usually holding a sign up asking for money. They would make it sound like they couldn’t speak French and it dawned on me pretty early on that they would change identity depending on what was going on in the world at the time. Fall of Ceausescu in Romania in 1989? They were all Romanian. War in Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995? They were all refugees from Yugoslavia. I’m sure today that they are all holding signs that say they are from Libya. Smart move no? How can you tug at someone’s heartstrings the most? Look sad and distraught, carry a tiny baby around on a sling and say that you are from a war-torn country that has been on the news every day for the past year.
I am not going to write about how I dislike people who beg – not at all. It’s not the people I dislike, it’s the system that makes it so that there are people who have to beg to survive. Although I wish we didn’t have to live with poverty in this day and age, we all know that it’s never going to go away. The rich get richer, the poor stay poor, unless they are really lucky. The even poorer struggle to live and depend on others to help them. There are many reasons why a person may be begging on the streets of a city, and I am not going to write an essay on that. I do however, severely dislike people who beg while using their children as a prop. It makes me so angry and sad at the same time – parading your child around the streets of a town to get money is just wrong. We frown upon the wide use of children to beg in countries like India, where groups of adults actually collect and buy children from their parents and use them in begging organizations (yes, we have all seen Slumdog Millionaire); but when it actually happens in our country we just let it happen. It’s still child exploitation. Especially when the children get to an age where they should be at school, or at least interacting with other children their own age.
The reason why I bring this up is because I hadn’t really encountered this in NYC until very recently. I’ve seen Vietnam vets, pregnant ladies, crackheads, people who claim they have AIDS and no money for meds, buskers, poets, dancers, actors (that subway version of Act V, Scene 3 was pretty amazing), blind people etc… But I hadn’t noticed anyone begging with their children until recently. Then twice in one week I saw it. The first time it was a couple with a tiny baby, with a sign asking for money. The second time it was a guy playing the accordion, followed by a woman and a little girl. Just like it used to be back in France… The war-torn country victims who are trying to get money from people by parading their children around the subways. And the main reason why it really makes me angry is that it makes me want to cry. I wish I could do something about it, but I can’t, so I am just writing about how much it really annoys me to see this happen.
There are lots of organisations around that help the homeless - if you want to volunteer or donate, see this website for more information: Hearts and Minds