Bucharest and Beggars
I don’t pretend to know everything about beggars in Bucharest, and I wouldn’t be surprised if most of what I’m about to write is wrong and I’ll one day have to retract it all, but one thing you’ll notice if you come out here to Bucharest is that there’s plenty of people begging on the city streets. It’s not swarming with beggars, but there are enough here to make you notice.
It’s not like going to parts of Africa or Haiti, where almost everyone you meet is dying of malnutrition, desperate for a bite to eat. Begging in Bucharest is sometimes easier to deal with and seems almost light-hearted and carefree in comparison, but it can show up in forms that are a lot darker, more sinister, and just plain heartless.
Milwaukee begging came in various forms, but they were always pretty tame and everyone generally assumed beggars would use whatever you gave them to buy cigarettes and alcohol, even though this wasn’t always the case. You’ve got your drunks who approach everyone with a different story each time, you’ve got your homeless guys who are hungry but definitely not starving, you’ve got your musicians who put out a guitar case and play music for spare change, and you’ve got the guy stuck in a bad situation who just needs a little help to get him over the hump.
In Haiti or Africa, begging was everywhere. As soon as we got off the plane, we were swarmed by desperately needy people who really hadn’t eaten for a week, worked really hard for almost no money, and were in a bad situation at a bad time with no hope of getting out of it.
I haven’t totally figured out Bucharestian begging yet. On the one hand, you’ve got the standard musicians who play music for money. I haven’t seen as many as in the States, but they’re here. And you’ve got your regular drunk homeless guys who’ve made a mess of their lives and refuse to take any responsibility for it. They say they want to change, but by the way they live, it’s clear they really just want their alcohol. Pretty normal so far.
And then there’s the “happily homeless” people, mostly men. They sleep on benches, in parks, in abandoned buildings, under bridges. They could get a job, but they just don’t want to. They tell you how much they enjoy the freedom of living for themselves, not worrying about anyone or anything else. Police don’t seem to bother them much, everyone buys them food, and they’re enjoying their privileged status in life, mooching off the earnings of others. They don’t bother anyone most of the time, but they may make a random drunken statement or try to grab at random women who walk too close.
Marian sits on a bench outside our apartment most days. Sometimes he sleeps there and sometimes he’ll walk around to the back, where it’s quieter, and sleep by the stray dogs. He’s always happy, usually has a bottle of beer in hand. God has given me a real heart of love for him, so I try to buy him food, sit down and talk in broken Romanian, and pray with him any chance I have. I confess, when I’m in a hurry, I’ve given him money instead of buying food for him, but I don’t like doing that because I know how much he loves his alcohol. I pray for him a lot, and one day I hope Marian will give his life over to Jesus and be completely changed, but right now, I’ve shared my testimony and challenged him to live for God, but I’m waiting on the Holy Spirit to do His work.
On the flip-side of this happy-go-lucky picture of begging I’ve seen here, I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve told me about groups of beggars who are kept as slaves, and here is the darker, more sinister side of begging in Bucharest. I don’t quite get it all yet, but I’ve heard it’s such a serious thing here that the government has warned everyone to not give money to beggars because it’ll likely just support the slaveholder (or pimp, or whatever you wanna call him). The pimp controls and manipulates the beggars, takes all his earnings, and forces him out on the streets day after day.
One day, near the subway, a mom and her four kids sat on a blanket, looking defeated, faces of hopelessness and gloom, eyes sunk back in their heads from hunger. They didn’t say anything, just looked at me with broken, vacant eyes. About fifteen feet away stood a well-dressed man with gold chains, keeping a close eye on them. I watched for about ten minutes and he never let his eyes off them. Was he their slaveholder, their pimp? I don’t know, but the whole thing was disturbing either way.
That same day, I walked past an old man with no legs, laying on a mat, staring vacantly at a wall, ribs sticking out from his body like a mountain range pulling up from the valley floor beneath it. He didn’t say anything, just stared at me with vacant eyes again. He had a handwritten sign that said something about being hungry.
The most disturbing was the burn victim with almost no hair, lumps in the place of feet, a badly disfigured hunchback, and a vacant stair of pain and hopelessness. He didn’t look at anyone, just lay curled up on a piece of cardboard and stared at the ground.
The pimps will enslave homeless kids too, like in the movie Slumdog Millionaire. I’m sure they prefer it, because who wants to see a kid starve? You could probably get a lot of money by sending groups of kids out begging for you. We’ve heard about groups who live in the sewers alongside their pimps. A friend of ours gave a few lei to a kid who was begging one day, because he looked really hungry. As soon as he had the money, the kid ran to a well-dressed man who stuck his hands in the boy’s pockets, pulled out wads of cash, and placed them one-by-one in his already well-filled wallet. Another time, that same friend gave clothes to a naked kid begging on the street. The next day, the kid was back, still naked and still begging. What happened to the clothes? I don’t know. Maybe his pimp (or his parents) sold them and kept the money. Maybe they just took them away and sent the kid out naked, because it was a better marketing strategy than a finely-dressed young man asking for donations.
I don’t know if these beggars are kept as slaves by pimps or not. Maybe they’re getting sent out by their parents who are too lazy to get jobs. Maybe they’re leftovers from the Ceausescu regime’s over-stocked and neglected orphanages. I don’t know… It makes you sick either way.
It makes you wanna catch all the pimps and slaveholders, lock ‘em away in prison, and set the beggars free to be healed and delivered from the demons of fear and rejection they’ve had beat into them through years of abuse.
Problems like these are overwhelming in this city, but thankfully we’re serving the One who told us, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19) Yeah, that’s the Jesus I serve.