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The reality of begging in different parts of Belgium

It’s become an all-too-familiar sight on our streets – the forlorn sign of people begging. However, the official response to this apparently growing trend differs quite widely in Belgium. The solution in parts of Flanders has been to crack down on the problem, with calls, in the past, by the mayor of Gent to prohibit begging. Blankenberge, on the coast, has effectively banned begging, while another Flemish town, Mechelen, has considered a ban, including at the entrance to supermarkets and at special events. Under the plan, beggars would be subject to a “symbolic fine”.

Police checks suggested that many of the beggars do not actually live in Mechelen, and there’s evidence of organised criminal practices like conspiracy and exploitation. In Antwerp, the city’s mayor, Bart de Wever, said police would soon be able to seize money from beggars who acted aggressively.

The picture is slightly different in Brussels, though, with the city’s authorities adopting a more softly-softly approach. The city prosecutor’s office says the priority is putting a stop to beggars’ use of children, which can carry a prison sentence of up to five years. According to a spokesman for the city council, the aim in central Brussels is to stamp out aggressive begging and the exploitation of children. Some have called for an action plan to tackle the increasing number of beggars on Brussels’ streets, but Brussels has no plans to introduce laws against begging any time soon.

With Belgium still in the depths of winter, I took to the streets, complete with begging bowl, to see for myself how generous (or not) people here are towards beggars. As an added twist, we decided the assignment should take place in the country’s two biggest cities – Brussels and Antwerp. How, I wondered, would the kindness of people in the capital compare with the 2nd city?

My first stop was outside the Bourse in the centre of Brussels, an area bustling with tourists and locals alike – surely a prime setting to make money? Sitting outside a fashionable restaurant with a cardboard “homeless” sign at my feet and a rock holding down a plastic collecting container, I waited in anticipation of “earning” some easy money.

With the time seeming to drag endlessly, most of the passerby seemed desperate to avoid the gaze of my eyes and “sad plight”, choosing instead to focus on their phones or look straight ahead.

After about 15 minutes, a female hand reaches out, clutching a few cents and a bottle of water. “God bless you. Have a nice day”, she says. I responded with an embarrassing smile.

Seconds later, a well-dressed man offers me some more change. As noon comes and goes, I continue my silent “experiment” on the sidewalk and receive money from people who appear quite sympathetic. Some hand me small denomination coins, while others make offerings of food.

In one 40-minute session, I collect a €5 note from an elderly woman who, judging by her own appearance, can barely afford it. Compared with the hitherto meagre takings, this feels like I have hit the jackpot.

After four hours of sitting in the bitter cold with arms and legs covered, I fold up my sad sign and get ready to leave. With the princely sum of €12.45 cents in my pocket, I walk towards the Central Station and the same assignment – in Antwerp.

Still dressed in the roughest/dirtiest clothes I could lay my hands on (and a down-and-out, three-day-old stubble), I squatted down in a busy street close to the city’s mainline train station. With an ever-present parade, I was convinced this could be the place to be to better my Brussels earnings.

Sadly, I was to be proved very wrong. Within about two minutes, I was told (in no uncertain terms) “where I could stick my sign”. Broken English it may have been but the message was perfectly clear. I was being told to “get the hell out of the town” and “do a day’s work.” The fact that the man who delivered the message was middle aged and apparently well-spoken merely seemed to reinforce the dispiriting experience.

Not the best of starts – and it didn’t get much better. There was further nasty abuse about 20 minutes later when two young men sidled up to me sat next to a fast food outlet and kicked my homeless sign away. Laughing at what they had done, one of them then spat on the floor in my direction.

Having recovered the sign – and with what little dignity I still possessed – I decided to move on to another location in another street nearby, hoping my fortunes might improve. Again, sadly I was wrong. It was not long before a police officer approached me and started asking what I thought I was doing. The inference, clearly, was that my presence on the street was an affront to the image of Antwerp.

So, for a third time, I was forced to move on – this time closer to the city’s cathedral where I maybe was hoping for a little celestial intervention. After a short time in my latest location, I did finally encounter a little more compassion – a couple (possibly tourists?) bent down to me and asked how I was feeling and if I needed some food. Generously, they gave me a sandwich and also a few coins, both very gratefully received after my earlier, rather humiliating experience in the city.

Unlike a genuinely homeless person who feels the need to beg, I was able to pack up my tattered sign and clothes and return to my relatively comfortable lifestyle. Even so, several hours spent sat begging on the streets of two big cities had given me an invaluable insight into the plight of the homeless.

Verdict? While there should be no attempt to draw any definitive conclusions from such an unscientific exercise, the people of Brussels were rather more generous than their counterparts in Belgium’s 2nd city – at least on this occasion.

Marie-Anne Roberecht is from the Belgian charity, Samusocial, which runs a winter shelter programme every year to help the homeless. She gave an overview on the seriousness of the problem, saying, “At Samusocial’s level, we can observe that begging is indeed an increasing problem. It has not worsened with the influx of migrants from Africa, but has done with the people from Eastern-Europe.”

She points out that, in Belgium, begging has not actually been a criminal offence since the 1993 law repealing the ban on begging, so everyone is free to beg if he wishes. In Belgium, legislators have chosen not to penalize begging by parents who are accompanied by their children.

What is forbidden is the trafficking of human beings, that is, forcing someone to beg. She said, “But each mayor (bourgmestre) of the several communes in Brussels are free to forbid begging where he or she wishes (in tourist zones, for example) by a police regulation (règlement de police).” She adds, “However, for us at Samusocial, this is only a way to avoid dealing with the problem. In other words, criminalizing a homeless person only further reinforces his or her exclusion.”

Samusocial believes there are two types of begging: “begging by necessity” which is mostly individual begging. Marie-Anne says, “This phenomenon has always existed. People who beg by necessity are often found around churches, railway stations and public places.” Then there is organized begging, which is done more on a network basis and via channels of human trafficking. “We are talking here about criminals who exploit children, people with disabilities and so on,” she said. “The only purpose is to make money. These people are not homeless people. It is clear that organized begging involving children is a judicial issue, and it is up to the prosecutor’s office to intervene. This is something that we support at Samusocial for the protection of children.”

Freek Spinnewijn, director of the European Federation of National Organisations Working with the Homeless, said the problem of begging and homelessness in Antwerp is less serious than in Brussels and can vary between 500 and 1,000 people at any one time, depending on the definition of homelessness and methodology used. 

Despite the continuing plight of the homeless, there is some good news: a new report says that poverty levels in Belgium are lower than the EU average. Compared to other advanced economies, the gap between rich and poor is narrow in Belgium, and various factors, from the country’s high minimum wage to its well-funded welfare system, keep the overall rate of poverty low. 

By Martin Banks

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