A cursory look at the streets, traffic lights and intersections in Brussels reveals a disturbing phenomenon – an overwhelming rise in the population of beggars.
Amid the ever changing appearances of the city, one feature of commune life remains the same – the daily presence of beggars on the streets. These include youngsters aged between 16 and 18 who are reduced to begging on the streets – pinning their few hopes on the generosity of caring shoppers and passers-by.
But what is it really like for people, often living below the breadline, to resort to begging? I took to the streets of Brussels to find out. Clad in cheap clothing, holding a piece of tatty cardboard bearing the plea “Please Help” and brandishing a plastic tub, I braved the bitter cold.
It wasn´t long after I had settled down at my chosen “pitch” that the first coins started falling into the container – cash from kind-hearted people I did not know for doing absolutely nothing. For all they knew I could have been a “professional scrounger” and Brussels Police say that unlike other cities such as London, these are thankfully a small minority.
But, recently, a Texan was found to be making $100,000 a year from his panhandling posing as being mentally and physically handicapped.
For the kind souls offering me money none of this seemed to matter.
As I sat shame-faced on the cold pavement, a woman stopped, dropped a few cents into my cup and declared, “il fait froid”. As the cash started to mount, I encountered my first negative reaction – a man pointed to my sign and ordered me in no uncertain terms what to do with it.
A short time later my faith in humanity was partly restored when an elderly woman came up to me, bent down, wished me, “Bonne Annee” and dropped a euro coin in my cup. I was too embarrassed to look her in the eye. Amazingly, a few seconds later, she returned and dropped another euro coin in the container.
It was touching that an old person, probably with little herself, was prepared to help me without prompting. I do not know who was the more embarrassed.
Were people giving their hard-earned cash because their conscience told them to or did they really care for my pathetic plight?
A woman, laden with shopping bags and pushing a young child in a pushchair, stopped and asked if I wanted a sandwich. When I declined she put a coin in the cup. Another passerby urged me to visit a homeless shelter, saying that was where I could get something to eat and drink.
For all the kindness shown to me by some, the majority of people simply looked away when they passed.
After over four hours in biting cold, I counted out the money from my tub – I’d been given 11 euros and 80 cents.
Even in these hard-pressed times, there is clearly some goodwill left though, of course, later I was able to change my clothes and regain my dignity, a privilege not enjoyed by the genuine homeless.
The homeless regime in Brussels is governed by a convention between the social aid agency CPAS, of Brussels-City, and SamuSocial, the non-profit which administers homeless shelters, plus the Communal Community Committee.
Between November 2013 and the end of March 2014, 400 beds will be provided in a building on the Rue Royale owned by the CPAS. The Committee has approved €1.1 million for the provision of shelter. It has also agreed €300,000 for a winter project which provides psychological support for the homeless aimed at helping rehabilitate them in the long term.
As well as a bed for the night, Brussels’ homeless will also find shelter for their dogs, 16 of which can be housed in containers at the Central Station provided by the Prince Laurent Foundation and the charity Hoeksteen.
There are fears that increasing numbers of Roma will use new EU freedom of movement rules to leave Romania and gather in the biggest and wealthiest cities of the West, such as Brussels, where some say they will turn to begging and crime.
Borcoi Freguta, a 43-year-old Romanian mother of five, who was begging near the European Parliament, told me,”I don’t beg at home but I need money. We have a very small house and my children and three nephews all live with us. I can’t afford it. So here, I beg. People have the wrong impression about us,’ she says. ‘We’re not all criminals.”
It is estimated that at any given time there are at least 150 people, or ‘rough sleepers’, bedding down on Brussels’ streets.
Ghent mayor Daniel Termont said last year he wants the federal government to take measures to prohibit begging but having endured the humiliation of just one day’s begging, I can only imagine what it must be like for someone reduced to doing this on a permanent basis.
* The money given to the journalist was donated to a homeless charity.