Fundraisers (why say beggars? Same thing.) around Riga's Central Station are nothing new. You get to know them by sight after a while. There is the cat and dog colony kept by one or more bums at the entrance to what I call the “Stockmann tunnel” (which leads from the Central Station square to the Stockmann department store and the Forum Cinemas multiplex). Also on the steps are an old woman sitting impassively and another woman who suffers from some neuromuscular disorder. Standing by Riga's and some say, northern Europe's busiest pedestrian crossing are a number of amputees, one with a crutch, the others double amputees in wheelchairs. There have been a number of “bum fights” between the man with the crutch and at least one of the guys in a wheelchair. Apparently there are territorial issues. The shouting during the fights is in Russian.
One of the most intriguing characters is a relatively young man (20s) on crutches with a a below-the-knee amputation, who I will call Hippety-Hop, because, until recently, he was a very forward and aggressive fundraiser, actually going out in traffic and hopping up to stopped cars to solicit alms. He also spends hours standing at one or the other of his favored positions (one is at the steps leading down to the Stockmann tunnel). Hippety-Hop can be there for hours, standing. Street-level fundraising is a full time job for him, as it is for many of the others. But given Hippety-Hop's stamina and vigor (until recently), one wonders what exactly happened to the man and why he is doing what he does – hopping around and plaintively fund-raising in Russian (or so I suppose). I saw him last summer when he was almost exclusively working the traffic lights and stopped cars.
Losing part of a leg is a major trauma, but it cannot compare to the disfigurement and degradation of the double amputees or the alcohol-ravaged bums. Why was Hippety-Hop, whatever his level of education, not offered some kind of rehabilitation and work? If the dude can stand for hours or hop around on his crutches, why not do factory work, if not in Latvia, then Ireland or the UK? Most European countries have programs to put the lightly (and in some cases, even the most severely physically handicapped) to work. In a call center, no one knows how many legs you have.
I don't think Hippety Hop has the language skills for this kind of work. Lately, it seems, he is on the downslope. His face shows signs of what I suspect is drug abuse. My guess is heroin, I have seen him in what seems to be a “nod”, eyes closed, impassive, face looking more ravaged than ever before. Last summer, when fundraising among the cars waiting for then lights to change there was even a vigor to his hop-step and an earnest look on his face as he almost demanded something from the drivers. Now it looks like the dude is down and out.
It looks like there may never have been a chance for Hippety-Hop to get back into a normal life after losing part of his leg, neither through the efforts of Latvia's rock-bottom impoverished social welfare system, nor through assistance from charities or non-governmental organizations. Of course, I don't know the full story, or, for that matter, any story about Hippety-Hop. For all I know, his injury may have been the result of recklessness, part of a stupid, risk-taking lifestyle.
Certainly heroin is not a good choice. Latvia doesn't, as far as I know, have open, non-judgmental needle exchange or methadone programs (I don't know because I don't hang around with any junkies). So every time Hippety-Hop snorts or shoots up, he risks overdosing, or, if using the needle , HIV or hepatitis.
Will Hippety-Hop last out the summer? Who knows? Ironically, he may go down before his fellow fundraisers, the bums wallowing in the dog and cat colony, the old lady, the woman with the neuromuscular thing, even the double amputees and bumfighters. I know almost nothing about social work, but at least some months ago, it may possibly have pulled Hippety-Hop off the street and out of this particular form of fundraising.