Lithuania cracks down on beggars and alsmgivers

December 5, 2011 - 1:00 PM
Lithuania Panhandlers

In this Nov. 30, 2011 photo, a beggar sits on a bench on Gedinimas Avenue in Lithuania's capital, Vilnius. The city recently introduced a ban on panhandling that not only punishes those who beg but those who give, with fines of up to 2,000 litas ($770). Outraged rights groups say the ban spells misery for the needy in one of Europe's poorest countries, as winter kicks in and economic turmoil spreads across the continent. (AP Photo/Mindaugas Kulbis)

VILNIUS, Lithuania (AP) — A coin tossed into a beggar's hat in Vilnius can be costly charity.

Lithuania's capital recently introduced a ban on panhandling that not only punishes those who beg but those who give, with fines of up to 2,000 litas ($770).

Outraged rights groups say the ban spells misery for the needy in one of Europe's poorest countries, as winter kicks in and economic turmoil spreads across the continent. Like other European Union nations, Lithuania has been implementing severe welfare cuts that promise to hit the homeless hard.

"Begging is a human right," said Linas Kukuraitis, director of the Lithuanian chapter of Catholic charity group Caritas. "It was there long before cities emerged. There have always been those who begged and those who helped them."

But Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas says the ban will help beggars to find more sustainable ways to make a living.

"Giving money to people on the street is wrong," Zuokas said. "By doing this we doom them to stay there forever."

The ordinance took effect last week, but local police in Vilnius are not issuing fines just yet. Instead they are handing out cards to beggars with addresses and phone numbers of charities and homeless shelters. Stricter enforcement is expected to begin in January.

The mayor himself rode his bicycle on the cobblestone streets of the medieval city center on Sunday, looking for violators of the ban. Zuokas made a splash on YouTube earlier this year by riding an armored personnel carrier over a luxury car as a publicity stunt for his crackdown on illegal parking.

"You are doing the wrong thing by giving them money," Zuokas told a Polish tourist who dropped coins in an old man's hat. "If you really want to help them, it is better to give food or give to charity."

He said there are plenty of homeless shelters for the poor in Vilnius, "but they stay on the streets because it is a kind of business."

Caritas estimates there are about 10,000 homeless people in the capital of Lithuania, whose income per capita is one of the lowest in the EU despite big strides since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Some Asian countries have laws targeting both beggars and almsgivers but European vagrancy laws typically focus only on those asking for money, and aren't always strictly enforced.

However, police in Ireland cracked down on panhandlers this year, arresting 540 people, mostly Roma, in central Dublin in the six months after an anti-begging law took effect on Feb. 2. Austria's Styria province also introduced a begging ban in February. None of them punish almsgivers.

By contrast, Norway, one of the world's richest countries, abolished a more than 100-year-old vagrancy law in 2005, making it legal to beg in the streets. It's also legal in Sweden, Germany, Spain and Portugal, among other countries.

Lithuania's ban had no noticeable effect this weekend in downtown Vilnius, where beggars were posted as usual outside churches and at busy intersections.

A haggard Russian-speaking man with a toothless smile, who only identified himself as Andrei, said he would continue begging.

"What can police do?" he said, puffing on a filterless cigarette. "Punish us? One day in custody? One year? This changes nothing. After that we will return and continue."

In a statement that appeared to address protests from Catholic groups, the Vilnius City Council said the prohibition would not be enforced "near houses of worship, monasteries and convents or during religious services and events that have official permits from the city government."

Henrikas Mickevicius, director of the Human Rights Monitoring Institute in Vilnius, said he would defy the ban as an act of civil disobedience.

"I will not stop giving alms myself and encourage others to continue doing it. If I get caught, let's take it to court and we will see who wins," he said.

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Associated Press writers Karl Ritter in Stockholm; Shawn Pogatchnik in Dublin, Ireland; George Jahn in Vienna; David Rising in Berlin and Alan Clendenning in Madrid contributed to this report.