Authorities powerless to act against beggars with children in tow
Panhandlers, often from Central Europe, have become a fixture on the Helsinki summer scene
By Tommi Hannula in Helsinki
People walking in downtown Helsinki this summer have been taken aback by the number of beggars on the streets. Many feel that there are more of them sitting on the sidewalks than in previous summers. Often the panhandler is accompanied by a small child or infant in addition to the cup for alms.
"This has been a phenomenon for some years now, limited to the summer months. The majority of the beggars probably come from Central Europe", reckons Insp. Jari Mäkiniemi of the Helsinki Police Department's Central Precinct.
"Bringing a child or children along with them is often a kind of marketing trick, a means of generating sympathy."
There is little or nothing the police can do about the matter, as according to the new Public Order Act, introduced in 2003 to replace local government ordinances, begging in and of itself is not prohibited.
"The criteria for a charge of illegal collection of funds are not met if the beggar simply sits there quietly with a cup out in front and waits for someone to toss a coin in. Before we can act, there must be an element of what might be termed 'hands-on marketing'. If the beggar for instance grabs aggressively at people's sleeves, then it is a different matter altogether", explains Mäkiniemi.
"The police can intervene in cases of begging only if the beggar is causing a public disturbance", he points out.
According to Mäkiniemi, the beggars seen in downtown Helsinki have not been guilty of pushy or aggressive behaviour.
What has troubled many people is not so much the adults with their hand out as the children often brought along for the ride.
The children quite clearly live in dreadful circumstances. Nevertheless, this summer at least, the Emergency Services unit of the City of Helsinki's Social Services Department has not received any reports or complaints about them, and for instance there have been no cases where children are removed from a parent and taken into foster care.
"It is possible to file a child welfare report to us in the normal way. We treat all cases reported to us on an individual basis", says Osmo Jurvanen, the Acting Senior Social Worker at Emergency Social Services.
One factor that makes it even more difficult for the authorities to step in to alleviate perceived distress among the children is that most of the panhandlers seen in Helsinki are foreigners, often from Bulgaria or Romania.
"To a great extent, normal child welfare arrangements cover only Helsinki residents. Things already get more difficult when we are dealing with residents of another Finnish city or municipality, so when it is a case of a foreigner, the situation is really quite complicated", observes Jurvanen.
Insp. Mäkiniemi also notes that the nationality of the beggars has its own role in the proceedings.
"If the beggar is from an EU member-state, then Social Services have greater freedom to act. In principle at least it is possible to take EU citizens into care, but not people from outside the Union. In that case, it might be a matter for deportation. Then again, in practice, panhandlers do not get deported", notes Mäkiniemi.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 6.8.2007
TOMMI HANNULA / Helsingin Sanomat