Calder At Large

Peter Calder on life in New Zealand

Peter Calder: Begging the view from street level

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Homeless man's claim that Kiwis are blind to poverty problem strikes chord amid debate over tough bylaw.

Herald readers' online remarks suggest opinion is evenly divided on a proposed ban on beggars. Photo / Richard Robinson
Herald readers' online remarks suggest opinion is evenly divided on a proposed ban on beggars. Photo / Richard Robinson

He says I can call him Smokey. He tells me it's his street name. He's only 38, but his grey beard and hollow, careworn expression seem to add a dozen years to that.

He sits in the watery mid-morning sunlight opposite Britomart Station, his cap upturned next to a piece of cardboard on which he has neatly lettered "Hi Guyz Any spare change 4 food & 4 shelter plz". He stares straight ahead, perhaps aware that a supplicating look - or indeed any eye contact - might be construed as constituting "a manner that may intimidate or cause a nuisance", to use the proposed wording of a council bylaw.

As he talks, I am aware that not everything he says adds up: that he lost a house he owned in Christchurch's red zone because he had let the insurance lapse; that he's been banned from the Auckland City Mission for beating up a drug dealer; that he "looks after" 30 street kids, keeps them fed and warm.

Maybe not all of it is true. Why should it be? How many of us, confronted without warning by a nosy journalist with a recording device, will not massage the truth a little?

Is he called Smokey because he smokes, I ask, by way of breaking the ice. His eyes drop to the bedraggled centimetre of roll-your-own in his heavily tattooed hand. "Oh, no, people give it to me," he says, resisting any implication that a man begging for money might spend it on tobacco. I feel a stab of shame that he thought I would judge him so.

Anyone who has travelled in India knows what it is to grow so inured to beggars that you swear at them, push them away. The sheer tide of need is overwhelming. But once when I tried to wave away a young man in the London Underground, he came back with an urgent "Come on, man. I'm starving." The plea in my native language brought me up short, confronting me afresh with the reality that I was rejecting a human in extremes of need I had never known.

Smokey's not going to say any such thing. He sits and waits and takes what he gets, which, he tells me, is more than the benefit he can't get because he has no address or ID.

"I'm just sitting here doing nothing," he says, when I ask him about the beefed-up proposal to ban all beggars, nuisance or otherwise. "I'm not being a pain in the arse. I'm minding my own business and not getting into trouble. If they are going to ban us from doing this, the only thing we've got left to do is to get into trouble."

Smokey's suggestion that we "choose not to see" the depth and breadth of poverty in this country strikes a chord. The routine hassling by police, he says, started in the lead-up to the Rugby World Cup "because everyone was worried that beggars would give the city a bad look". As civic leaders contemplate the idea of a ban, it's tempting to suggest that nothing much has changed.

Herald readers' online comments suggest an even split of opinion, but the level of reproof among supporters' comments is striking: "This is not a third world country"; "It is a disgrace that decent, respectable people should have to be molested by ghastly vagrant freeloaders."

That last word is telling. It refers to someone who takes without giving in return. (Perhaps beggars should sing for their supper). Yet it plugs directly into an old Kiwi ethic about pulling your weight, paying your way, doing your share - and an accompanying sense that a shortage of money is more than anything a moral failing. A generation after the word "poverty" entered the New Zealand lexicon for the first time since the Great Depression, it's a perspective that seems almost quaint.

After I finish talking to Smokey, I go to buy him a sandwich. Reflexively, I scan the display cases looking to make my charity cheap. It shocks me to realise that what I'm doing may be more to make myself feel better than to help him out.

I settle on a cheese-and-ham toasted sandwich. "Make it good and crispy," I tell the shop assistant. When I give it to Smokey, he beams and says "God bless". It's odd to hear God's blessing called down on me by a man who has so very few blessings of his own to count.

- NZ Herald

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