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2006-04-04 The business of begging

I crouched down, dropped two pound coins into the battered paper cup, and smiled reassuringly at the hollow-eyed grungy teenager - a lost soul in a vast metropolis, with a long cold night ahead of her.

 

During my first year in London I held a part-time job in Zwemmers Music & Bookshop, just off Charing Cross Road, and many evenings as I made my way from Embankment to Waterloo, I would pass through Cardboard City  one of the most shameful hallmarks of Tory Britain. I walked, priest and Levite-like, past countless souls peering out from their temporary cardboard shelters. In my mind I constructed plausible biographies of these young people, some of whom had exchanged years of abuse or violence, for homelessness. I grew increasingly guilty, but had given away my loose change. One man hurled several fattistexpletives in my direction. My guilt turned to anger, but there was no point in explaining to him that I had given away all I had to one of his younger, and in my mind more needy, neighbours.

 

Begging is one of the worlds oldest professions, and during the following years I became more aware that some were simply feeding a drink or drugs habit, while others were legitimately in dire need of shelter and food, but how are we to determine which ones are kosher?

Thankfully, child begging in Ireland seems to be on the decline. Squeegers, who washed our windscreens at traffic lights (or in my case made my windscreen more dirty), appear to have been relegated to the past. Someone begging with a baby, or a dog, always tugs even harder at my heart-strings  I can almost see that dog outstretch his paw.

In India, some children are rented to professional beggars, some even maimed by their parents in order to coerce them into begging. Street beggars in India are often part of a crime ring, a sort of begging Mafia, so much so that in Bombay, for example, begging has become one of the most well-networked, controlled and managed businesses.

For me, one of the most invasive forms of begging is licensed begging. At times when I walk down Grafton Street I find myself performing a slalom of avoidance, as well-meaning students working on a commission basis, make good people (who may already be subscribing generously to carefully chosen charities) feel insecure and inferior by convincing them to sign up to moral IOUs.

Internet begging, cyber-begging or e-panhandling grew in popularity around the time Karyn Bosnak set up saveKaryn.com in order to clear her credit card bill. (Feel free to send cheques made out to James Nelson c/o this fine publication).Internet begging and advertising are invasive to the extreme. Every time I retrieve my emails I am bombarded with multiple offers of how to make my partner more satisfied, by means of Viagra, or by more drastic means, more suitable to a Gentlemans magazine or a Surgeons monthly. I have no need for assistance in my downstairs department thank you.

I was a reluctant boy-scout, but a keen bob-a-jobber, and since those early years have remained a firm believer in clubs doing something physical in order to fund-raise, rather than simply shake a can of coins in peoples faces outside supermarkets. I would be much quicker to donate to a sports club organising a sponsored walk or a swimathon, and have no problem giving coins to helpful kids who pack my bags at the supermarket checkout. Perhaps it is a better message to send out to our younger generation  to earn rewards, rather than gain them by, essentially, begging?

One of my favourite charities is Bóthar which aims to establish Third World families in micro-farming. Recently I heard a heart-warming story about a young girl on her 9th birthday, instead of opting for unwanted girly presents, asking for a donation from each of her party-going friends for this fine charity. A camel was given to a Third World Family with the money raised. Bóthars good work, sponsoring a child with Save the Children, supplying a guide-dog for the blind, or giving unwanted currency on flights to Unicef, are all just a selection of the many unquestionably worthy causes out there.

Alms are material help given to the needy. It is just not always easy to tell who truly falls under that needy umbrella.