We’ve all been there: you’re leaving McDonald’s when you’re greeted by a homeless person who puts on a mournful face and asks you for some loose change. Because you’re feeling charitable, you hand him a few coins. He thanks you, tucks the change into his pocket and moves on to his next potential donor. The next day you’re walking past Wimpy and the same guy with the same mournful expression asks you for more loose change. But this time you might not be having such a great day and maybe you’re just a little broke, so you nervously and apologetically turn him down. The same thing happens the following day and the day after that. Eventually, you force yourself to stop paying attention to him no matter how desperate he seems.

Poverty is a sad reality in this country, one that no one is trying to ignore. If the government is addressing the problem adequately, why are there still beggars at traffic lights, on every street corner and outside restaurants?

Perdeby talked to one of the many homeless people in Hatfield. Steven (who has no known last name) says that he’s been begging for a living since he was a young boy when he left home after both his parents passed away from illness. “I came to Pretoria to find work, but I had no school and papers so no one wanted to hire [me].” Steven, who “lives” on the pavement on the corner of Duncan and Prospect Street and begs at various locations around Hatfield, says that he has no other option but to beg. “I don’t do crime, I’m a Christian. I just want enough money to eat every day.” He doesn’t remember his age or his last name. He says that he has never had a birth certificate, even when his parents were still alive, and he has no idea how to get one. He stopped attending school after grade three and he admits that since he started begging he has taken to alcohol to help him deal with his situation.

Hatfield is a student district and as such, students are the ones who end up donating their change. Are students really the most reliable or even logical target for begging?

James Radebe, a second-year BSc Geography student, thinks they are. “In comparison to them, we’re wealthy and they’re not asking for much. Everyone has something to spare, even if it’s 50 cents.” Esme van den Heever, a first-year economics student, disagrees. “They’d do much better if they moved to more affluent suburbs [or] maybe even the CBD. An extra R2 a day adds up to a lot at the end of the month and that doesn’t fit into any student’s budget,” she says.

Nkosi Libede, a final-year physics student, believes that there are plenty of opportunities for homeless people to improve their lives without resorting to begging. “The government has done a lot to help these people out, but some of them just don’t want the help,” he says.

In South Africa there are NGOs that cater specifically to homeless people by placing them in homeless shelters and helping them to find employment. There are orphanages for children who find themselves without any parents or guardians. Despite all these measures that are in place to help shift the economic inequalities in the country, there are still a number of people who resort to begging as a way of getting by. Libede believes that most homeless people prefer making money the easy way, either because they’re used to it or because they enjoy the lack of accountability. “They’re not responsible for anyone but themselves and they don’t answer to anyone. It’s no secret that some of them leave homeless shelters and return to being hobos because the life we’re paying for them to have with our change involves drugs and alcohol, something the government can’t give [them in the shelters],” he adds.

In certain countries like the UK as well as parts of the USA (Florida and Georgia) and Canada (Ontario), begging is either illegal or regulated by permits which are obtained from the respective municipalities. In South Africa, there aren’t any laws against panhandling, which makes it difficult for officials to control it. It has been speculated that there is definitely a connection between the number of homeless people in a particular area and the frequency of crimes like mugging and pick-pocketing which take place in that area. Could society benefit from some form of law that dictates when, where and how begging should take place?

It might still be a while before poverty is eradicated in this country. People might regard standing on the corner of Burnett Street, accosting students exiting McDonald’s and pleading with them for money as an easy solution. Whether you give them some of your change or a nervous and polite apology is completely up to you. And as Steven puts it: “The help we need is not money, it is kindness.”

Do you think: 1. Begging is fine and we need to understand it, 2. Begging should be made illegal, 3. Begging should be controlled better? Vote at pPerdeby748g.

Photo: Gloria Mbogma

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