FOR YE HAVE THE POOR ALWAYS © Duncan Graham 2006
Next time your car window is knuckled by a beggar jangling bottle tops, or wagging an amputated stump across the windscreen – ignore.
This advice isn’t being offered by a callous Caucasian, infuriated or embarrassed beyond reason, but by the head of a government department, Dra Wiwik Indrasih.
“The more people pay, the more the beggars are encouraged to stay,” she said. “Please don’t give them money.”
Wiwik runs the Social Department in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second biggest city and scavenging ground for around 2,000 beggars. Being a government officer she has the figures down to final digits, but acknowledged the statistics are elastic.
At the time of researching this story intersections in the East Java capital were almost free of beggars following yet another clean up – the latest called Operation Justice. But by the time keyboarding began a few had already shuffled back onto the streets.
“Our public order staff pick them up and take them to our centre where they can be held for three days,” Wiwik said. (See sidebar)
“We check their identities and see what the problems are. About 90 per cent come from towns outside Surabaya, so we give them a ticket to return home. If they’re from Surabaya and fit for work we try to train them so they can get jobs as pedicab drivers or gardeners.
“If they come back to Surabaya three times after being warned away we call the police. They’re arrested and jailed for three months.
“But even this doesn’t always work as prison provides food, a bed and shelter that’s often much better than the life they’re living on the streets.”
Surabaya doesn’t have a workers’ permit system like Jakarta to prevent country folk from trying their luck in the Big Smoke. So anyone can jump a bus and with a two-string guitar strum their way across the province to a supposed Eldorado.
Wiwik’s staff said a beggar who puts in the long hours at a busy location could pocket around Rp 30,000 (US $3) a day. That’s less than doing shifts at a lathe in some sweatshop – but the gap isn’t so wide that it would force someone to get a ‘proper’ job.
The begging environment is probably the most carcinogenic occupation in a city where pollution is a serious health hazard even for those shut in air-conditioned offices. Shame must also be a factor, particularly in Java where self-pride is important, though Wiwik claimed there’s a rotating culture of begging in some families and groups.
“The parents are beggars and teach their children to beg,” she said. “They grow up and their children go on the streets. They don’t want to do anything different. It’s very hard to change their attitude.”
When the crossroads get clogged and there’s a non-stop drum beat of fingers on car windows, the public complains. Newspapers run stories and the politicians demand action.
Then banners are printed and hung across the streets. These announce that begging is illegal and offenders face prison.
Watching the indigent continue to ply their trade under these stern warnings flapping in the breeze is one of Surabaya’s more curious sights. The police on point duty whistle and wave through the traffic stream but ignore the lawbreakers alongside.
“The police don’t think it’s their job to make arrests,” said Wiwik. “There’s no coordination between departments.”
The street kids are sent to hostels run by non-government agencies. An annual subsidy of Rp 500,000 (US $55) per child is paid by the department, plus school fees of Rp 350,000 (US $38).
Next to problems with maids and the shenanigans of sinetron stars, the audacity of beggars is a prominent topic among the chattering classes. A popular theme has beggars living in mansions and being chauffeured to the best pads by agents who cream off the takings.
Do these tales of business beggars have substance? Wiwik said she’d also heard the stories but didn’t know if they were correct. She didn’t have proof. However the looks and grins that circulated among her staff while the question was being put and answered indicated the tales aren’t all urban myths.
“The number of beggars is decreasing,” said Wiwik. “Eight years ago during krismon (the economic crisis) there were more than 5,000.
“As Indonesians we are ashamed to have beggars on the streets. I hope by 2010 there’ll be none left in Surabaya.”
OUT OF SIGHT
The Social Department’s processing centre (Pondok Sosial) is way out of town, beyond a minibus terminal, close to a rubbish dump and vacant wasteland. Despite the location it’s not a totally bad environment taking all factors into consideration.
These include the lack of a national universal welfare scheme and the reluctance of politicians to vote enough funds to support the needy. The culture expects families to care for the aged, infirm and unfortunate – not the state.
Then there’s the reality of poverty, unemployment and underemployment in an overcrowded archipelago.
The statistics rise and fall depending on how high the hurdle is set and who is stabbing the calculator - but 20 million seriously poor seems to be the most accepted (and unacceptable) figure.
That’s equal to the population of Australia.
The Surabaya centre was opened eight years ago. It’s clean, has some pleasant gardens and the grounds are spacious. The rooms aren’t – just a few square metres, though people prefer to eat and chat outside. The place can accommodate 250 but when The Jakarta Post visited the number was less than half.
Only adults stay at Pondok Sosial – children are sent to hostels run by non-government organisations. Most are long-term residents, the elderly poor without families and those who are mentally ill and can’t afford hospital.
Even in modern Western countries there’s no satisfactory way to handle these tragic cases. An institution is always an institution – however calm the pastel shades of paint on the high walls and bars.
There are about 90 staff at the centre. Drugs are used to pacify the violent and cheer the depressed. Attempts are made at therapy and the men’s section was exercising during the visit.
The gates to the compound stay open during daylight hours, and guards are only in place at night. Escape would be difficult because the place is so far out of town and any absconder easily spotted.
THE CRIPPLE’S TALE
In a bid to get a beggar’s side to this story arrangements were made for an apparently crippled man to be interviewed in Malang. He’s a regular feature at a busy intersection and seems to do well – though being unable to reach for handouts has them tossed down from the windows of the big black saloons.
Watching him scrabble for small change spinning towards a drain and among moving traffic is an ugly sight, demeaning for all involved
The middle-aged man’s tactics included shuffling on his bottom between cars and motorbikes. One stiff and ulcerated leg jutting ahead, wrapped in filthy bandages and apparently blood soaked, helps open wallets.
To avoid embarrassment at having a discussion with a well-dressed foreigner in full view of passing cars, a rendezvous was organised round the corner in the shade of a tree.
It was only 20 metres distant – but would it be unfair and unethical to ask him to drag his leg that far?
No worries. He got up and strolled across to the tree. Yes, he’d be happy to be interviewed – but no name and no photos.
He explained that his children were getting support from the Social Department in Surabaya. If government staff saw his picture in the paper working as a beggar, they’d cut off his kids’ benefits.
WORKING OUT OF POVERTY
There are 15 charities in Surabaya subsidised by the Social Department to assist street kids. Many organisations are religious.
The Institute of Training to Self Help Activity (LBM) cares for 20 street kids. It also runs a credit service for what it calls ‘tramps and loiterers’ with entrepreneurial flair.
“If people can save a sum for at least three months then we’ll lend them double that amount or more for a little business project,” said LBM head Soemijodo Hadidjojo.
“We’ve helped well over a hundred buy their own pedicabs or start food stalls. In that time only three borrowers have defaulted.
“People without ID have most problems with officials. Without the right documents they often can’t get any help. Few have birth certificates. We try to get them proper papers.
“We’re also trying to train the unemployed to be shoemakers. Three shoe factories have closed in Surabaya and there’s a demand for cheap school footwear.”
Surabaya’s poor tend to squat on thin strips of land alongside rivers, drains and the railway. One cramped three-level slum holding more than 150 families is just across the road from the Governor’s vast office complex, though well-hidden from public view.
The credit system works like this: Families are visited and their plans discussed. If these seem practical the applicants are invited to deposit money with the LBM. These sums are usually small – under Rp 50,000 (US $5.50) a month. They’re recorded in little books.
When a record of regular saving has been established the savings are handed back. Money is lent and repaid over ten months to make calculations easy. There’s no interest and there are no administration charges.
“It’s like a bank, but of course it’s not,” said Soemijodo. “The banks won’t open accounts of less than Rp 500,000 (US $55) and have heavy admin charges and high interest rates. The poor just don’t go near the banks.”
Cholisah and Murjito heard about the scheme only by chance and have used it to effect. She now has a small food stall outside a Catholic hospital while he has a compressor across the road and repairs punctures. Together the couple say they can earn about Rp 45,000 (US $5) a day and are repaying their loan at Rp 20,000 (US $2) a month.
The crossroads where they work is also a favored area for supposed young mothers using suckling babes to enhance their compassion routine.
The money allegedly received by the beggars from generous motorists isn’t that much less than the income of the entrepreneurial couple. But Cholisah and Murjito have their dignity.
(Extra sidebar beggar story)
TELLING IT STRAIGHT
Surabaya motorists are getting a temporary respite from the demands of beggars thanks to the city clean-up campaign. But that’s bad news for Satinah, her pedicab-pushing husband Djuanrydi who gets about Rp 15,000 (US$1.50) a day, and their three little kids.
“I’m just too frightened to go on the streets at the moment,” she said. ”The last time I was stopped by the police. They told that if I begged again they’d call the Social Department and have me taken away.”
So the family is down Rp 10,000 (US $1) a day, which is what Satinah says she got during an afternoon rush-hour shift at nearby crossroads. If she took along her daughter Dini, 2, maybe she’d get Rp 1,000 more.
A few drivers abused her, she said. However most just ignored her pleas for a handout. The generous ones usually gave a Rp 100 (US 1 cent) coin.
The family lives in one tiny room in the sweltering depths of an airless kampong where the gangways are just wide enough for two people to pass – provided neither is plump. Rats have chewed the rafters. The floor is cracked concrete.
If this is an example of a beggar’s mansion as imagined by cynics and skeptics then most of us would prefer the underside of a bridge. At least the family is supporting the president’s demands for citizens to follow thrifty and modest lifestyles
It’s a conscience-kicking experience to recognize beggars whose demands I’ve rejected on their beat - then to discover when I entered their homes asking for help to write this story that they remembered me from past arid encounters
Viewed through a windscreen (avoid all eye-contact), they’re a nuisance. Up close and personal they’re fellow humans with crippling problems defying easy resolution.
Originally from Madura, Satinah, 26, is a lively young woman who only completed primary school. She says she’d like to work as a maid but won’t be separated from her kids. Finding a home where the whole family would be accepted is impossible.
She’s lost her identity card which means she can’t get help from the Social Department. Her friends in the same kampong go begging together when the clean-up campaigns run out of energy. Few have ID cards.
Supriatin, one of the few Christians in the kampong, said she had to beg to support her two children because her husband Rudi had suffered a stroke.
Working the traffic has given these women the confidence to express themselves with force. “Change the president,” they chorused with vigor when asked for a solution – but failed to nominate a successor.
“He put up the price of fuel, now he’s doing the same with rice. We got Rp 100,000 (US $11) a month for three months to compensate for the fuel price rise – now nothing.
“No-one at the top knows what it’s like to be like us. We only want money, food and jobs.”
(First published in The Jakarta Post 19 December 2006)