Jason Bissett hustles coins on the Ha'penny Bridge in Dublin. "If you hassle people, you should be arrested," he says. (By Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)
Irish Beggars Told to Mind Manners As Economy Slumps, New Law Targets Aggressive Panhandling
Saturday, December 20, 2008; Page A11
DUBLIN -- Jason Bissett, 30, sat on a busy pedestrian bridge that arches over the River Liffey, a hood pulled tight around his head and his hand out.
"Can you spare any change? Please. Can you spare any change?" he asked softly, aware that police now consider "aggressive" begging a crime.
Last month, the government announced a crackdown on hostile panhandlers, introducing the first new laws against begging since the Potato Famine in the 1840s. A conviction could lead to as much as a month in jail or a 700 euro fine, about $976, according to a Justice Ministry statement, which said the final language of the measure will be published soon.
The move comes as begging near bank machines, rail stations and landmarks grows more visible in cities across Europe, which has been badly battered by the global economic crisis.
In Ireland, where a once red-hot economy was among the first to falter, many people say an influx of immigrants from Romania and other Eastern European countries has added to the panhandling problem. Most disturbing, some say, is that adults might be exploiting children by forcing them to beg.
"It was very distressing to witness young children effectively forced onto the streets to beg by sinister adults," said Dermot Ahern, the justice minister. "Business and tourists are damaged by begging on the streets."
Caroline O'Sullivan, a spokeswoman for the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said that government officials felt pressured to do something but that she personally has "not come across an intimidating beggar." She criticized the law for heavily fining those asking for spare change: "They will have to go out begging again to pay the fine."
Roughan McNamara, a spokesman for Focus Ireland, a charity for the homeless, said the new measure "smacks of total overreaction."
"Isn't it easy to say no?" McNamara said.
Currently, McNamara said, there are about 5,000 homeless people in Ireland, nearly all housed in shelters or temporary housing. "All charities are seeing a rising in demand for their services," McNamara said. "Life is getting a lot more difficult."
The attempt to curb begging follows a court decision last year that found the Vagrancy Act of 1847 incompatible with the constitutional protection of freedom of speech. Ahern said that the new law would not be used, for instance, against a young person simply asking for bus fare home late at night but that people whom the police deem intimidating or harassing would be subject to the penalties.
Gary Kennedy, 50, a shopkeeper, said he "wouldn't call those who have an intimidating manner a beggar."
"I'd call them a robber," he said. "And there are already laws against that. It's strange to have a law against hostile begging."
Several Dubliners said they sometimes wonder whether someone bumming money off them is really destitute or prefers begging to working.
"I have seen people coming out of a house with a sign that said 'HOMELESS,' " said Kate White, 26, an architecture student in Dublin. "It's well known you can generate a good income this way."
White said some of the beggars "do invade your personal space."
Advocates for the homeless and children said that immigrants from many nations are asking for money on Irish street corners but that those with children often are "travelers," as some itinerant Irish people are known.
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has launched an awareness campaign called "Giving Money Is Not the Answer."
"If you give the children money, it encourages the parents to send the kids out again and again," O'Sullivan said, adding that it was particularly heartbreaking to see children asking for money at Christmas. She said those who want to help should give the child soup or a sandwich, not cash, and bring them to the attention of authorities who can get help for the entire family.
Bissett, the man asking for spare change on Dublin's landmark Ha'penny Bridge, said he lost his job as a chef's assistant a few years ago.
"If I am just sitting here and not hassling people, it's okay. Police will leave you alone," he said. "If you hassle people, you should be arrested."
Farther down the 19th-century bridge, which got its name for the halfpenny toll that was once charged there, a Bulgarian woman who barely spoke English asked passersby for change.
Every so often, a person hurrying by in the wet cold night dropped a coin or two into Bissett's plastic coffee cup. He said he might get $30 or twice that, depending on the day, but generally the amount was smaller.
"People are giving less," he said, pulling the collar of his thin jacket up around his neck, as the wind whipped down the river.
Special correspondent Shannon Smiley in Berlin contributed to this report.