Experts argue that the plan is not feasible and ignores broader initiatives needed to eliminate the gap between haves and have nots
A homeless man sleeps on Nguyen Tri Phuong Bridge connecting districts 5 and 8 in Ho Chi Minh City. The municipal authorities are considering a plan to wipe out begging in the city by 2015, but experts say the initiative ignores the root causes of poverty.
Tam doesn't remember how many years he has wandered around Ho Chi Minh City streets begging for alms and picking up scrap material, hoping each day to put at least a bite of food in his mouth.
He sleeps on the Nguyen Tri Phuong Bridge connecting districts 5 and 8, because this is one of the few parts of the city where police won't hassle him.
He shelters himself with nothing more than a piece of worn cloth tied to the bridge's rails, covering him like a tent with two corners held to the ground by rocks.
When Thanh Nien Weekly approached, severe skin infections were apparent on the 50-year-old man from several feet away. He jumped, thinking it was the police. Asked if he were afraid of the police, he said loudly "Sure!"
A new plan to eliminate begging in the city aims to place homeless people like Tam in charity centers and enroll them in educational and vocational training programs.
But experts say the problem is not begging. It is poverty, and larger measures need to be taken to tackle the issue, they added.
The HCMC labor department is gathering opinions on a draft plan that aims to send the homeless and beggars either to charity centers or back to their hometowns in an effort to spruce up the city's image.
Experts, however, argue that the plan targets the poor more than it helps them. Many say the plan should be part of a nationwide initiative to eliminate the gap between the rich and poor. They argue that inequality is at the heart of the homelessness issue, and simply sweeping beggars out of sight won't solve anything.
Under the draft titled "Dealing with Wandering Beggars and the Homeless in HCMC," the city aims to have no beggars and homeless in its central districts, including districts 1, 3, 4, 5, 6 and Phu Nhuan, Binh Thanh and Tan Binh districts by 2013.
The plan, which will be carried out in other districts by 2015, includes sending the beggars and homeless to charity centers for education and vocational training and finding jobs for them.
The city authorities will send beggars from other provinces back to their hometowns and coordinate with these provinces to admit them to local charity centers. Drafters also proposed strict measures against people who force others to become beggars and extort their money.
The draft encourages city dwellers not to give alms to wandering beggars and instead says philanthropists should donate through charity centers.
Official statistics on the number of homeless people and beggars in HCMC have yet to be released. The municipal labor department has admitted 8,500 of them to charity centers between 2009 and 2010, including 900 who are officially registered residents of HCMC.
Many beggars often wander in the city's downtown in District 1. The district authorities have admitted 1,031 beggars to charity centers so far since early last year.
Le Chu Giang of the labor department said the city's "distinguished features" give it more social problem challenges than other localities.
After each spate of natural disasters or epidemics in other regions, the poor from nearby provinces have often migrated to the city to seek better opportunities and many of them became beggars, Giang was quoted by the Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper as saying.
Some experts said the benevolence of many HCMC residents has not only attracted beggars but also inspired many to impersonate beggars to make easy money.
Last Thursday (August 25), District 5 police detained five people disguised as Buddhist monks begging for donations in the streets.
Police said these people were indeed poor but they were not monks. They had worn the disguises to earn each between VND200,000 (US$9.6) and VND400,000 a day during the Vu Lan Buddhist festival in which people are more likely to donate for religious purposes. But the HCMC Buddhist Association forbids its members from begging in the streets.
Phan Ngoc Anh of the Social Support Center said they will identify each beggar and homeless person found and will send those who still have relatives back to their hometowns while other homeless will be admitted to the center.
But critics say those sent home will soon return and others sent to charity centers will find ways to leave.
Experts said the draft plan would fail to eliminate begging as it is an inevitable social problem all over the world not only in Vietnam.
Nguyen Minh Hoa, an urban development expert at the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities, said homelessness and begging existed in even the most developed cities like New York and Paris.
"This is a social problem because any society has needy people. In order to have a good image, only the city's efforts are not enough." he said.
Hoa said the draft's plan to advise HCMC people not to give alms to wandering beggars was also not feasible.
"The city residents are well aware that some beggars may either be extorted by others, or they might even be in disguise. But they still give away alms.
"I donate money even if of ten beggars only two or three are actual beggars. If I refused all the ten, it means I refused to help the two or three who are really in need for alms," he said.
He said moving beggars from the city wouldn't work because those who don't want to be admitted to charity centers would migrate to other provinces and still be beggars.
Experts said HCMC couldn't imitate Da Nang, which launched a similar plan in 2001 and managed to sweep most beggars away from the city center.
"I don't think HCMC could clear beggars and homeless completely off the streets and public places. HCMC is much larger than Da Nang," Vuong Chi Thanh of Da Nang's Tourism Promotion Center told Thanh Nien Weekly.
Since 2001, Da Nang authorities have significantly improved the city's image by keeping beggars away from public places via admitting them to charity centers or sending them back to their hometowns. The city has also awarded VND200,000 to anyone who reports wandering beggars to authorities.
However, Thanh said Da Nang's plan has not been completely successful even though it's been in place for ten years. "There are still some beggars around and relevant authorities are still working," he said.
Hoa of the HCMC University of Social Sciences and Humanities said the central government should remove the gap between the rich and poor and between urban and rural people to completely solve the begging and homelessness issue.
"It must be a plan launched by the central government nationwide with thorough implementation in every locality to develop rural areas, create jobs and improve social welfare," he said.
Hoa cited a 2009 study by five universities in Vietnam on improving capacity of poverty alleviation found the richest sectors of Vietnam were 44 times wealthier than the poorest.
"The actual causes [of beggars in HCMC] are the rich and poor gap and growth discrepancies between rural and urban areas," he said.
Giang, the labor official, said his agency would try to improve social services for the elderly, handicapped and disadvantaged people to solve the beggar problem in the long term.
"There will be more programs on poverty alleviation and social welfare that encourage the support of organizations and individuals. These programs would significantly help the disadvantaged people and prevent them from becoming beggars," he said.