Have readers been observing what we have been across Barbados, especially in recent years? It seems as if there has been an upsurge in street begging, based on the sheer number of persons coming up to passers-by and asking for money daily.
After being approached, a frustrated gentleman remarked the other day, somewhat sarcastically, that begging had to be Barbados’ new growth industry.
Anyone who visits any major centre of commercial or social activity, such as shopping centres, the environs of supermarkets or fast-food restaurants, Bridgetown, Oistins, St Lawrence Gap, or popular beaches where locals and tourists congregate, is likely to have an encounter with a beggar.
We draw attention to this growing social issue, not with the aim of apportioning blame, exaggerating or sensationalizing what, in some cases, speaks to obvious personal tragedy, but because the problem seems to be reaching the point where it can be aptly described as a major public nuisance.
Once upon a time, the few street beggars on the island would be found mostly around Bridgetown. For some of them, it was a profession of sorts. The story was told of one particular individual who reportedly earned more money from begging to deposit in a bank account than many hardworking persons in gainful employment.
Resorting to begging has traditionally been a difficult decision for the average Barbadian –– even in cases where one had fallen on hard times. Pride in oneself was such an inhibiting factor that most people preferred to suffer in silence and keep their business to themselves.
Of course, close relatives and friends who became aware of their plight, would pitch in. The bonds of family and friendship were so strong back then that people felt it was their responsibility to assist those in their community who had unfortunately suffered setbacks. Persons have since become more individualistic.
Today, a lot of the beggars roaming our streets are young men. Generally unkempt in appearance, their behaviour leaves little doubt that they are hassling for money to satisfy a hearty appetite for drugs. Others have obvious mental issues. They come up to people, just about anywhere, to beg for a dollar or two, even a quarter in some instances.
Sometimes, they claim to be hungry as if to play on the emotions of would-be donors but when offers are made, in response, to purchase them a meal instead of handing over money, they quickly show disinterest. Their preference is for hard cash and sometimes they can be quite abusive if none is forthcoming.
What is of particular concern, given Barbados’ heavy dependence on tourism, is the fact that tourists are often easy prey for these characters who can be quite aggressive at times. To ensure that Barbados’ image as a destination remains unblemished, this form of visitor harassment needs to be more effectively addressed.
There is another equally worrying side to the begging problem. Quite a number of persons are reporting increasing cases where they are being approached by senior citizens asking for help mainly to buy food or pay for other necessities. In these tough economic times, this sign suggests their limited incomes are not stretching as far as before.
Their plight in some cases is compounded by the fact that relatives who previously may have assisted, are also struggling to make ends meet, and are no longer able to help out on the scale they did previously. Government assistance too is not available at the level that it was before because of spending cuts.
A way must be found, nevertheless, to help our seniors and prevent more from falling through the cracks.
Research is obviously needed to grasp the true extent of the begging problem in order to respond effectively. Social service agencies are ideally suited to take the lead in this regard.
Widespread begging is alien to the Barbadian way of life. It represents a blemish on the social landscape that must be addressed with compassion –– and a sense of urgency.