Belfast telegraph / Undercover – treated like a leper begging in Belfast
By Rodney Edwards
Sunday, 21 June 2009
Rodney Edwards, begging in Belfast
Last Thursday I decided to join the ranks of Belfast’s beggars to gauge the Northern Ireland public’s reaction to the growing problem on the city streets.
Public opinion has been divided this past week on the plight of Romanian immigrants in Belfast judging by the comments on radio talkshows.
Despite the outrage at the sickening attacks and threats on the families, there has also been anger over the growing number of Romanians begging on city streets.
Within minutes of posing as a beggar in south Belfast, close to where some of the recent racist attacks have taken place, I could see that I was not welcome.
Wearing a torn and grubby shirt, with sleeves uneven in length, plus tattered jeans and busted shoes, I certainly looked the part.
And sitting on a cardboard box on a cracked pavement with bare windowless walls and vacant shops surrounding me, I felt it too.
Close to University Street, I sat by a lamppost and shook my cup looking for donations.
One woman just glared at me, while another walked to the other side of the street to avoid me. Many passers-by shook their heads. Clinging on to the hope that someone would feel some sympathy, I continued to beg for spare change but nobody offered any.
“Cigarette?” asked one man. I shook my head.
Before long, I was being treated like a leper who had broken the rules by boldly going out in public.
Many people went out of their way to avoid me — some walking behind me rather than passing in front.
Cars and taxis would pass as folk got on with their lives.
The rejection was hard to accept, I wanted someone to take pity on me.
With the rain pelting down, I sat drenched and downtrodden and concerned that hordes of people were hurrying past without acknowledging me once.
Different classes, different races, different ages all seemed to share a similar ignorance. It was sickening.
A little boy walking with his father studied me as the pair of them strolled past.
He quickly turned around when I smiled, clutching his dad’s hand harder.
I slumped into the corner of the pavement, trying to get shelter from the rain. My clothes were soaked through.
A bit later on I moved to a pavement along the busy Lisburn Road, close to where some of the recent racist attacks took place, hoping to find someone willing to help.
Many businesses in the area moved beggars away from the very same stretch of footpath the day before, so this was going to be interesting. Would they do it again?
I made eye contact with people as they walked past — hoping for a smile or a friendly donation, but all I got were strange looks and disgusted tuts instead.
Old women never even noticed me, men in suits continued barking down their phones with their heads held high.
Occasionally I stared at the ground, freezing and fed up, just watching all the feet shuffling past without stopping.
In a short time I counted 43 pairs of shoes and zero pence in my cup.
I was deliberately starving myself to get into the mindset of a homeless person, but by begging outside a café I hoped someone would take pity on me.
Despite eating nothing for over 12 hours and feeling faint, I had to try to keep my head up. Even just for my own safety.
Groups complete with loutish individuals marched past hurling abuse and laughing.
Even in broad delight I was terrified, so I can’t imagine what it would have been like had I been lying in a bus shelter, an alleyway, a doorway or a park bench at night.
Then it got worse when a man came out of nowhere swearing at me.
He was furious that I was begging on the street.
“What the f*** do you think you’re doing? F*** off.”
And I did.
It was time to call it a day because I could.
It was easy to feel angry at the ignorance of folk but then how could I possibly judge?
When I spot a beggar in the street I react in the same cruel way.
I, like many of the people that passed me, treat homeless people as outcasts.
But I won’t anymore.
Embassy of Romania in the UK
4 Palace Green
London W8 4QD
Tel.: 0044 20 7937 9669
Fax: 0044 20 7937 8069
Mobile: 0044 75 00 55 88 44