Part of RNZ's Begging in New Zealand series.
One small way to better understand the life of a beggar is to become one yourself, if only for one hour. That's exactly what RNZ drama producer Jason Te Kare and feature producer David Steemson did.
Taking advice from a longtime street-dweller called Shadow, David and Jason went begging at separate times recently on Auckland's Queen Street.
The pair were struck by the generosity of some members of the public, but also by how much it changed their own perspectives on those who beg.
My first donation comes from a guy who walks with a different rhythm than all those who’ve already passed me on Queen Street. His swagger says, today is a good day.
By giving me some coins he is saying let me share my good day with you. I’m caught off guard at first and splutter “God bless” even though I’m not particularly religious. I’ve been standing here for what feels like half an hour ( actually only about ten minutes) but the refusals by the majority of people to acknowledge my existence has affected me more than I realise.
Then in an instant, one person sharing his good day makes me a person again.
It’s a defensive thing, not meeting the eyes of beggars. I walk this route at least twice a day during the week and I avoid eye contact because I don’t want the beggars to get their hopes up. I also don’t want to carry the guilt of having to say, “Nah sorry mate, I don’t have any change”.
It’s the truth but I know my habit of not carrying money is a tactic I’ve employed to help quell the guilt. Standing here being the one begging, I now know how much offence is in the defence of keeping eyes fixed downwards. How an acknowledged ‘'no'’ is far better than no acknowledgment at all.
The donation of food shocks me too, mostly because I witness the woman’s struggle and decision. It starts with a shared smile when I turn to look up the street and we catch each others' eye. Again it’s just a relief to be acknowledged. The woman continues down the street but freezes almost mid stride just past where I’m standing. She holds this position for about 30 seconds before turning and offering me the lunch she’s just purchased. I worry that she’ll be left with nothing to eat, so I gratefully decline. Then I instantly feel bad for turning down her generosity.
I also think it now looks like I’m an addict who only wants money. She disappears into the crowd leaving me wrestling with questions of right and wrong.
The biggest donation I receive affects me the most. It’s from a kuia who almost sneaks the $5 into my cup before I even know what she’s done. It’s taken me weeks to understand my response. At first I thought it was because she might be on a pension and not have much to give but on reflection I realise it’s the way she did it that cut to the core of who I am as a person. It was respectful, traditional, and didn’t want me to feel any worse for having to ask. She not only acknowledged me but treated my mana with care.
When it’s over I’m relieved but also grateful for the lesson. I know now it’s not just about money. It’s about acknowledging people and their mana.
Noon, Wednesday, Queen Street. I’m in my chosen spot, just as the lunchtime crowd disgorges itself from the office buildings.
My begging gear is old trackies, an orange t-shirt covered in paint, ancient water proof jacket, beanie and comfy sneakers. My beard’s been growing for a week, and looks splendidly tatty. I’ve taken off my glasses and removed my dental plate. Last week in the same spot, my much younger colleague Jason Te Kare collected $11.50 in just one hour. Will people give more or less to sad old Pakeha me?
Jason and I have already checked things out at the Auckland City Mission and promised that any takings will be donated there. We’ve also met members of the street people’s committee that gets together every Monday afternoon at the Mission, so they know what we’re up to. They all seem amenable. We hope so.
So, down to Queen Street and immediately, a snag. At the appointed spot, there are already two beggars. I hunch down.
“Hi, I’m David Steemson from RNZ and we’re doing a programme on begging, and we need to do it in this spot… because we‘ve already been here in this exact same spot last week”.
Beggars: But we’ve only just got here.
Me: We’ve been to the City Mission and got their OK.
Them: Oh? But nah, we’ve only just got here.
Me: Look we’ll split our takings with you.
Them: We only want to get enough money for lunch.
Me: We’ll buy you lunch!
They only want three dollars each. They buy their lunches and sit back to watch.
A-begging I go …
Ten minutes of frantic begging and bowl rattling has little effect. Then my first catch. Two dollars. The drought is broken.
Seventeen minutes in a man offers me cooked chicken in a container. I try to tell him what we’re doing, but he doesn’t want to listen and strides off.
A well-dressed business woman asks if I want something to eat. I say thanks, but explain why I’m here. She tells me she walks along Queen Street regularly and knows all the beggars and gives them food, especially when she sees a new one. Today that was me. She’s a hero.
One passerby says sorry, I’m a student. Another asks me for directions, which I give superbly. He then trots out the no cash excuse. Bah!
A Pasifika couple drop some money in. Their little son thinks he might do the same. His hand hovers over my begging cup but he holds tightly to his money. He looks at me, at his parents and back to me. Just as I say “you keep it”, he drops the coin in with a clink. I fish it out and give it back to him. I ain’t taking money from kids.
Time passes. My back is getting a bit stiff, my ankles ache. I spend time looking at people’s shoes. They’re expensive shoes, so why won’t they give to this beggar?
At the end of the hour I have collected $12.50, plus a couple of Australian coins. I glibly tell my colleagues the hour just flew past, but that’s a lie really. I wouldn’t want to do this again. It’s hard work; tiring, boring, and repetitive.
A beggar is not welcome by 98 percent of those who walk past. But there are the shining exceptions who stop and give or at least acknowledge my presence. And that does restore one’s faith in human nature.
To hear more about David and Jason's experience, listen to RNZ's Spectrum programme on Sunday night.