NEWS

Beggars at the traffic lights

Anger, annoyance, guilt, sadness, then anger again. Will I pretend to look in my bag or tell him I haven’t got any money? I can’t hand over money at every set of traffic lights. Here he comes. The man in front turned the windscreen wipers on. I’ll look serious; that’s what I’ll do. Or maybe not… The feelings alternate as we confront once again the sad sight of people in a wretched state, crowds of them peddling or panhandling in public places. Most of us try to rationalize our response: «They’re faking,» we say, or «Their parents take the money from them,» or «I’ll give money to one person, not all of them.» In fact we’re not imagining it. The number of panhandlers on the streets of Athens has increased dramatically in recent years. Police records show that in Greece in 2008, there were 882 cases (the overwhelming majority of whom were foreigners), rising to 1,253 cases in 2009 (an increase of 52.5 percent). In 1998 the number was 409. Though statistics are not yet available, 2010 will certainly show a further increase. On every street, at every traffic light, there is another human tragedy. True or false? In the end it doesn’t matter. X at the traffic lights on Kapodistriou Street counts up his change every night and buys souvlaki and juice for himself and his roommates. One day, young S on Patission Street exchanged 300 euros’ worth of coins for notes at a supermarket. The problem has many causes. On one hand, the economic crisis, both here and abroad, has driven many people onto the street. Unemployment and poverty are affecting more and more people who have no alternative but to beg. In those circles, there are many individuals who exploit women and children, forcing them to beg in the streets. On the other hand, the authorities also share a measure of responsibility for the growing problem. «We don’t have the capacity to deal with panhandlers,» said a police source, «and the reason is there simply isn’t room in the cells. Most of them belong to groups that are not easy to deport and they would have to spend three to four months in detention. But there isn’t room.» The same source noted that the public outcry after each sweep also plays a part: «Whenever we pick up people from the traffic lights, the public gets indignant. ‘Are they bothering you?’ they shout. That discourages police chiefs from dealing with the matter.» The issue is closely linked to immigration policy. During the previous government’s term in office, detention centers were in operation (they have since been closed due to appalling conditions), so there were places to send migrants arrested for begging, thus getting them off the streets. A member of the former administration told Kathimerini that the problem was tackled as part of the overall strategy of combating illegal immigration. Regular sweeps at traffic lights, deportation of undocumented migrants and, above all, announcing these measures, were all aimed at making Greece an inhospitable destination for illegal immigrants. However, it seems that this merely swept the problem under the carpet. When the detention centers closed and the cells filled up, there were no other options. Voluntary repatriation programs may ease the problem, which seems to be constantly growing.