A coin tossed into a beggar’s hat in Vilnius can be costly charity.
Lithuania’s capital recently introduced a ban on panhandling that not only punishes those who beg but those who give, with fines of up to 2,000 litas ($770).
Outraged rights groups say the ban spells misery for the needy in one of Europe’s poorest countries, as winter kicks in and economic turmoil spreads across the continent. Like other European Union nations, Lithuania has been implementing severe welfare cuts that promise to hit the homeless hard.
“Begging is a human right,” said Linas Kukuraitis, director of the Lithuanian chapter of Catholic charity group Caritas. “It was there long before cities emerged. There have always been those who begged and those who helped them.”
But Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas says the ban will help beggars to find more sustainable ways to make a living.
“Giving money to people on the street is wrong,” Zuokas said. “By doing this we doom them to stay there forever.”
The ordinance took effect last week, but local police in Vilnius are not issuing fines just yet. Instead they are handing out cards to beggars with addresses and phone numbers of charities and homeless shelters. Stricter enforcement is expected to begin in January.