Beggar's banquet of compassion

BY DAVE BURGESS
Last updated 05:00 15/05/2010

Dominion Post reporter Dave Burgess goes begging in Wellington.

A passer-by tries to convince Dave he should seek help
ROBERT KITCHIN/The Dominion Post
WORD OF ADVICE: A passer-by tries to convince Dave he should seek help. Women were particularly generous, with one giving food and $20.

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Powerful yet unexpected emotions struck me just minutes into my stint as a beggar. I was feeling like a low-life who would surely be ignored, abused or humiliated by passing pedestrians.

It didn't help that the people walking past towered above as I sat forlornly on the ground. They were largely reduced to a mass of knees and feet but held the moral and physical high ground.

While depressing messages were crashing around in my head, the reality presenting itself was surprisingly uplifting.

People really cared and showed a huge amount of compassion and generosity to someone who had apparently hit rock bottom.

By caring people, I mainly mean women, of all ages and races. Over the combined four hours' begging I received $126.20 from 32 people – but only five donations came from men.

The IRD said my begged money is considered a gift and does not attract tax. That is unlike street buskers, who are supposed to declare their earnings.

My larder was also well stocked, with a beggar's banquet of a cheeseburger, fries, two soft drinks, two cooked chicken schnitzels, a filled roll, apricot danish, and seven mince savories – all coming from women donors.

The Dominion Post will donate the money, including the value of the food, to Des Britten at the Wellington City Mission.

"I can't imagine anyone who would want to do this [beg] or want to live in a cardboard box or under a bridge," he said.

"Unfortunately there are a very few people in Wellington who choose to do this."

But even knowing the money was going to a worthy cause didn't stop a guilt trip every time a donation came my way. I was at the railway station when a big-hearted act of generosity truly choked me up.

A woman had gone to the supermarket at the station, bought cooked chicken schnitzels that cost $7.54, and handed them over with two crisp $10 notes.

All she said before leaving to board her train was: "I walked past before and saw you sitting there. I have got you something to eat, and put this [money] in your wallet."

Work and Income deputy chief executive Patricia Reade says Wellington case managers have visited beggars on the street about 20 times over the past six months to find out if they need help.

"The majority of beggars have refused to speak to us and in fact only one person accepted an invitation to discuss their benefit entitlements."

People on a benefit can usually earn $80 to $100 a week before their benefit is affected.

Wellington City Council's Public Places bylaw allows it to move beggars on if they are annoying or intimidating pedestrians, or blocking the footpath, but it is rarely enforced.

Six complaints were received over the past year, which were dealt with by Walkwise officers.

The God Squad was out in force as the unforgiving hardness of the footpath got increasingly uncomfortable while I was begging. A woman asked why I didn't have any hope and said I had to let the Lord into my life. She then handed over $20 so I could buy lunch.

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"It's all right," she said. "It's not my money, it's God's money."

She later returned with the address for the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Another woman also suggested I let God into my life and wanted to pray with me. The invitation was turned down but she still gave $10. "I can give you money but I can't save your soul."

A chap called Ross told me he had experienced hard times himself. He asked why I needed money – "Is it for rent, food, electricity, alcohol or drugs?" – and didn't believe my answer of "I'm OK."

"You have a sign around your neck saying, `No money, No hope'. To say you are all right doesn't make sense. There is always hope and there is always money available to help out with things."

He said to go to the Salvation Army's Hope Centre in Newtown, or to its church in Constable St.

All three are diamond geezers in my atheist book.

Though four of the five men who gave money were suit-wearers, the fifth was in overalls. He watched me for a few minutes from across Lambton Quay before walking over with a handful of change.

"Here you go, buddy," he said, as he turned to go back across the road.

A burly chap on the way to his train tried to give me a lit cigarette, which I turned down. "Aaayyeee," the disbelieving man said, before adding, "there is always hope ... keep your head up cuz".

BEING a journalist playing a beggar, I decided that lies were banned, so questions were given deliberately vague answers.

I also decided to cut a head-bowed, dejected figure, as if suffering from depression, and to let people approach me rather than getting into people's faces.

It seemed to work, helped no doubt by the "No hope" part of my handwritten sign.

There might be fakers out there trying to get rich, but my experience suggests that begging is soul-crushing and would be a last resort.

However, I must admit that, after my second begging stint, I wanted to mimic Telethon, shout out "We have a new total" and start a conga line while singing "Thank you very much for your kind donation." I bet real beggars never feel like that.

"THE MOST DOWNGRADING THING YOU CAN DO.."

Bryce Wilson, 44, has spent "a number of years" begging on his home streets of Wellington but still finds it "downgrading".

"I just come out here whenever I need to try and make enough money to stay at the night shelter on Taranaki St. It costs $7 a night and stops me living rough on the street."

The amount of money he collects varies widely and is sometimes as little as 10 cents. "I know how much the most I've collected but I'm not going to tell you that.

"This is the most downgrading thing you can do ... But I can still smile and Wellingtonians are good."

He is regularly abused or ignored by pedestrians but is also treated well at times.

He says he was once a "high-flier at the Dairy Board", but his troubles began after a change of career to construction. "I went into construction, which was something I always enjoyed doing. Playing with cranes, a man's sort of thing. But I had an accident and ACC wouldn't cover me. I couldn't get on a benefit so I ended up on the street."

When told that this reporter had voluntarily gone begging, he stopped talking and demanded to see some identification. "Frankly, I don't believe who you say you are. Why would anyone do that?"

With identity verified, the interview continued outside Whitcoulls on Lambton Quay. "There are a couple of con guys out there in Wellington doing the same thing, but I am definitely not one of them."

Wellington City Council spokesman Richard MacLean said beggars were not a big problem, with just six complaints over the past year.

"Anecdotally, we do get far more annoyed feedback about 'chuggers' – charity muggers – the smiley young people who congregate in Willis St and Civic Square and try to sign people up to Greenpeace or Red Cross. We did move them on from outside the Central Library a year or so back because they were hassling so many people."

HOW TO HELP

The $164.70 in money and food given to the reporter will be donated to the Wellington City Mission.

The Dominion Post will also match the amount.

People wishing to donate to the City Mission can go online at wellingtoncitymission.org.nz and press the "please donate" button.

There are options to donate online, send a cheque, make an automatic payment or give food or goods.

- The Dominion Post

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