Today I had a conversation with a semi-pro panhandler.
It all started in a desert and sun soaked Via Di San Martino, a steep sloping street in Genoa, my hometown. This guy oddly decided to ask me, a complete stranger he just ran into, for advice about good places for begging.
An interesting man in his own way.
50 years old, he lost his job more than a couple of years ago, meanwhile relatives that could lend him a hand passed away.
He talks a lot; it’s hard to tell where his real life story fades into a more endearing, conveniently altered version.
He insists that he’s looking for a job, but panhandling should do for the moment.
When I asked him if he went for help to a Centro di Ascolto (a counseling center run by the Catholic Diocese), he said they advised him to go out and sell balloons, as a street peddler.
But then it goes like this: people take pity on him and give him money without taking the balloon. As a consequence he feels humiliated, since being a “vendor” becomes a naked pretext to beg for charity without admitting it.
You might as well just beg and take the money, he elaborates… Can you blame him?
(Maybe finding dignity in being a modern peddler, selling stuff that people would refuse to buy if it were sold in a regular shop, sounds reasonable only from a certain cultural perspective, mostly developed within the ethos of some Islamic countries).
This gentle guy, with delicate complexion and the looks of a boy that never grew up, then goes on to point out the fact that all the good spots are already taken and off limits to newcomers.
I suggested traffic light stops, he added churches’ doorsteps. He doesn’t know who the organized beggars are, a cohesive group with their own rules and leaders. Based on ethnicity, for sure: he thinks they are Romanians but they could be from anywhere (I bet they are Gypsies). They threatened him and forced him to leave, on occasions.
It’s a business line you can’t pretend to enter on your own, without connections.
I’m struck by the discovery that nowadays, if you are an Italian in Italy, and you don’t have a supporting family, if opportunity windows close one by one until you are out of options and you end up panhandling …well, you can’t do that either!
At least not in a spot where it’s worth it.
These places are already in the hands of gangs of foreigners.
I bet you never considered this particular form of job competition before.
If you fail at life, chances are that you won’t even be able to become a beggar!
Not long ago I saw with my eyes, at a traffic light stop, this somewhat old man with a crutch, limping on the wrong foot (really!), collecting money from drivers (maybe on behalf of some shady type in a Mercedes?)…
Perhaps I got the wrong impression. Perhaps my limited point of view keeps me from seeing the big picture.
I know that I don’t know, I’m open to objections.
But there’s one thing I think I know: at this time and age people from advanced societies are facing problems that are increasingly dependent on strict artificial limitations that were imposed on them, constraints you have no hope to eliminate or relax. Laws, expectations, customs, how you were raised. Isolation.
This issue becomes critical when you plunge into poverty.
If you are a citizen of a modern western democracy and you end in the gutter, it seems your chances and options are more limited of those of people who just came illegally in the country, maybe risking their lives jumping off a dinghy.