Giving money to poor on street against the law

A homeless woman sleeps as a train passes by at Senen Station, in Jakarta. (JG)

A homeless woman sleeps as a train passes by at Senen Station, in Jakarta. (JG)

An article I found that might make it into the Smiling Hill newsletter:

ACTIVISTS ARE up in arms over the Jakarta administration’s plan to enforce a little-known bylaw banning beggars, buskers and bards in the Indonesian capital, calling the law, which makes handing spare change to homeless people a criminal offense, a “weird” and “ineffective” solution to a serious problem.

“What needs to be addressed is the problem of unemployment,” said Wardah Hafiz, a coordinator at the Jakarta-based Urban Poor Consortium. “It is the responsibility of the government to figure out how to provide [these people] with jobs.”

Some 30 million people in Indonesia live below the government’s poverty line, subsisting on less than a Rp 7,800 ($0.65) a day. But those figures only tell a small part of the story. Nearly half of the nation’s 247 million people hover around the World Bank’s cutoff of $2 a day, an internationally recognized poverty guideline.

The central government shifted the poverty guidelines in 2011, slashing the World Bank figure in half in a move that instantly made tens of millions of people low-income residents. The decision not only warped the government’s poverty figures, but it also left a significant chunk of the nation’s poor cut off from social aid programs.

For many of those born in underdeveloped villages, the cities offer a way out. The Jakarta administration has struggled for years to stem an annual influx of rural arrivals. But decades of Java-centric economic growth and the government’s failure to adequately develop infrastructure or create jobs in rural Indonesia continues to pull poor residents to the capital.

Now, as Jakarta’s new leaders push for sweeping changes to the chaotic capital, long-ignored bylaws, like this one barring residents from handing beggars money, are getting another look. Cities throughout the region have passed similar bylaws in a wide-reaching campaign against the nation’s so-called “social welfare problem.” But most, like the Jakarta bylaw, hope to curb homelessness through police action, not job creation.

In Jakarta, a rarely enforced 2007 bylaw aimed at reducing homelessness in the capital includes hefty penalties for those caught helping people in need. Violators of the newly enforced law face up to 60 days in jail and Rp 20 million ($1,664) in fines if they are caught by Jakarta police or the city’s Public Order Agency (Satpol PP).

“We have to punish those who give money to the beggars,” Jakarta Deputy Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama said. “Police have promised to apply the bylaw to the fullest extend.”

An angered Basuki said weak law enforcement allowed the capital to become a magnet for homeless migrants. And residents who hand over a few small bills only make the situation worse, the deputy governor said.

“You destroy them with your money,” Basuki said. “They only need food. If they chose to live in a shelter, they wouldn’t have to work because food, healthcare and beds are all provided. But if people give them [money] and they can get anywhere between Rp 7 million and Rp 21 million why would they bother living in a shelter?”

The deputy governor was referring to the “wealthy beggar,” a common myth supported by sporadic media reports on richer-than-expected buskers pulling in middle class wages. The most recent iteration of this narrative is the story of two men, Walang, 54, and Sa’aran, 70, who attempted to ply Satpol PP officers with a bribe in order to avoid being taken to a city shelter.

“I was begging [for money] under the Pancoran flyover at 11 p.m. and then officers nabbed me. They said they wanted to take me to a social house,” Walang said. “I don’t want that, so I offered the officers Rp 600,000.”

When the officers searched the pair’s cart, they found Rp 25 million stashed in a small box. The men said most of the funds came from selling a cow and a goat in their home village before moving to Jakarta, not from begging. They took the money with them out of fear that it would be stolen back home. The funds were meant to cover the payments on a Hajj trip to Mecca.

Life on the streets, Walang said, was more lucrative than living off handouts in a homeless shelter.

“I don’t want to be put in a social house,” Walang said. “I’d rather beg. I can get a lot of money that way.”

The officers transported the men to a nearby shelter. They will be sent back to their village, said Purwono, the head of the Bina Insan Bangun Daya II shelter in East Jakarta. He used the story as an example of when handing money to street beggars is a bad idea.

“Alms, donations are better off channeled through institutions or social shelters dealing with social problems,” Purwono said. “Don’t immediately believe [all beggars] are ill or poor.”

But homeless people like Walang and Sa’aran are the exception, not the rule, Wardah said. Few beggars pull in millions of rupiah a week and treating tales of “wealthy beggars” as anything but an anomaly is irresponsible, he explained.

“Beggars obtaining several millions [of rupiah] in two weeks, that is an exception,” Wardah said. “Not all beggars earn that much. Why all the fuss and repressive actions because of such an anomaly?”

Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo hopes to reduce the number of poor people living in Jakarta by 0.5% in the next five years. Last year, some 355,200 residents – 3.75% of the population – were living in poverty in the capital. By 2017, Joko aims to reduce that figure to less than 3.25% with a series of anti-poverty initiatives, including the construction of low-cost subsidized housing and a plan to increase foreign investment in the capital. The city’s official unemployment rate (TPT) stands at 10.8%, but the administration hopes to cut that figure down to 9.3% in five years’ time.

The city government needs to reduce the number of people living in poverty, Wardah said, but bylaws targeting beggars, or those who hand over small sums of cash, are an ineffective solution.

“If someone becomes a beggar because they are lazy, then there should be sanctions to deter them from doing so; but not by fining people Rp 20 million,” he said. “This policy is ineffective. How could anyone enforce the law? Will Ahok find out if I give money to a beggar in front of my house?” – The Jakarta Globe

About 2bagsandapack

Lifetime journalist, author, magazine editor and publisher, now semi-retired and traveling the world. My plan, after living in Costa Rica for 14 months, was to visit a new country in southern Europe every three months to experience the culture and the challenge of adapting to a new environment, while on a fixed income. That plan was sidetracked when I was offered a job in Indonesia, providing an opportunity to explore Asia. Indonesia lasted for a 4 wonderful years but I have now moved on to Hua Hin, Thailand.
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