End Station for U-Bahn Beggars
Many Complaints Have Forced Officials to Become More Alert and More Punitive
Street musicians are often an admired curiosity, something to make you stop and look up between restless daily routines. The musicians, called buskers, entertain buzzing crowds at city centers, while earning extra money often vital to their survival. They are less welcome in the subway, however, and the Wiener Linien Customer Service has been inundated by travelers calling to complain about beggar-musicians roaming the trains of Vienna’s underground.
The many calls have forced U-Bahn officials to be more watchful and more punitive, and they have introduced loud speaker alerts, repeated up to four times a day, asking customers not to support organized begging.
"Our customers are not stupid," Johannes Ehrengruber, spokesman for the Wiener Linien, said. "Many of them see U-Bahn beggars handing over their money to another person who takes it away. It’s obvious that they are organized in a way but they are also exploited."
"Some people even go so far as to compare the phenomenon of organized begging to the Mafia," said Dr. Georg Samuely from the Ministry of Justice, "this is an expression I totally disapprove of." Samuely pointed out that the beggars and musicians used to be organized in small groups, often within families, which allowed a fair "begging system".
Undergound commuters particularly complained about children accompanying their parents begging. The grown-ups play their instruments, while the little ones pass the hat, a common tactic in Eastern European countries where children often beg with, or even for, their parents.
In November, 2006 the Romanian newspaper Adevarul urged citizens to keep their pockets closed to children begging, however, the paper admitted that Romanians themselves found the young faces are disarming and had a hard time sticking to the advice when faced with the children themselves.
Not so in Vienna. The small, outstretched hand of a child puts Austrians off, making them angry rather than generous.
Apart from the recent ‘soft initiative’ of making announcements, other measures have been taken as well, such as police monitoring of U-Bahn stations, and since 2003, monitoring of the subway cars themselves.
When an U-Bahn busker is caught red-handed, the police escort him out, ask for identification and in most cases impose a fine of maximum 360 Euros.
"In case of insolvency the beggars are taken to the police station," said Samuely of the Justice Ministry. "If they can not produce an ID, there is the possibility of protective custody, but that does not happen often." The U-Bahn officials, however, are not authorized to take buskers in.
"They can only ask them to leave," Ehrengruber explained.
Due to the new controls, the number of U-Bahn buskers has dropped rather abruptly – at least for the time being.
"Running the announcements helped considerably," Ehrengruber said, "We know that the amount of U-Bahn beggars is decreasing, as the number of customer complaints is down. Because there are no statistics, this is the only indicator we can rely on."
Ultimately, though, the discussion about U-Bahn buskers and organized begging may come down to an issue of "East meets West." Having fought their way back to prosperity during the decades following World War II, Austrians have enjoyed 30 years of secure employment and a generous social net, therefore ,poverty has been rare. Consequently, Austrians are not used to seeing open begging and many disapprove of it, shrugging it off.
That helps explain why smaller Austrian towns and communities, such as Wiener Neustadt (Lower Austria) or Fürstenfeld (Styria) have banned begging, a step Graz, as the provincial capital of Styria, also considered a ban in the wake of the general elections of October, 2006. In 2005, however, a law passed the Styrian Regional Assembly that bans "aggressive begging" from public places in the whole province, a ban that includes busking.
But EU-expansion has forced a new awareness.
The geographical proximity of countries such as Slovakia reveals the wide gap between wealth and poverty, and the contrast fuels doubts and fears on both sides. Campus Forum, an Internet blog concerned with the issue, is crowded with users, and it reveals an imminent fear that open boarders will produce a permanent flow of immigrant beggars, asylum seekers and refugees from Eastern countries.
With Romania and Bulgaria now in the EU, many Austrians are on the edge, sensitive to such trends. As Campus Forum shows, the attitudes of the subway travelers are now more judgmental than ever, causing a growing tendency toward xenophobia.
Wiener Linien’s Ehrengruber refuses to make the problem bigger than it really is, however.
"Our measures have been quite effective," he says, "and we are far from being over run by immigrant beggars." Vienna’s subway is and will remain one of Europe’s most modern, quiet and safe underground transportation systems.
Paul Krauskopf and Matthias Wurz contributed to this report.