A 30-something young man in brown hooded sweater sits under a tree in the bustling heart of Helsinki at Kamppi shopping centre. At his feet an empty beer crate holds about five or six euros in coins. Next to it is an empty wine bottle that serves as a holder for a small Finnish flag. A speaker blasts music. The man is holding a cardboard sign that reads, "DOMESTIC ALTERNATIVE. MONEY FOR BEERS. THANK YOU."
The panhandler is reluctant to tell his real name so he agrees to go by the alias, Harald. He says that the mention of beer money on the sign is just one way to get cash. He is not homeless, but says that his disability pension and income subsidy only amount to just over 600 euros each month.
"I can honestly say that [asking for] beer money just a gimmick. We too are in need. I go to the breadline at Hursti’s," he added. By Hursti, Harald is referring to the charitable organisation that distributes food twice weekly and clothing once a week on Helsinginkatu in Helsinki’s Kallio district. However the NGO does not provide services during the summer.
When Harald says "we", he’s referring to other native Finnish panhandlers who carry cardboard signs and solicit money from passerby in the city centre. Harald claims to know at least four other people in similar circumstances and said that he believes that the numbers are growing.
"Sure, Finns too can beg. We are mostly protesting the fact that benefits aren’t enough to live on," he declares.
Maximum daily take up to 400 euros
Harald has been begging on street corners for about six years. Every day he counts out between five and 400 euros. He says young adults are usually the most generous. Sitting outside festivals offers the best opportunity to haul in hundreds in donations.
"Somehow people think you are more honest than other beggars when you ask for beer money."
Sitting in the open streets has its drawbacks. A few passersby have condemned Harald as bigoted because his sign mentions a "domestic alternative".
"Some people have kicked over the Finnish flag, but [I’ve had] no other disruptions. It’s just a case of righting the flag and trying again," he remarks.
Yle asked Harald if he really spends the money he collects on beer.
"Today I’ve collected so little that I won’t go buy a beer. I’ll just get cigarettes and a little something to eat."
Panhandling an extreme measure
Although Harald believes that there has been an increase in the number of Finns cadging for cash on the streets, Helsinki University poverty researcher Virpi Mäkinen takes a different view. She said she hasn’t observed more Finns taking to street corners. Cases like Harald’s, she said, are isolated.
"There is no research data on the matter, but I have seen Finns popping up on the streets," Mäkinen acknowledged, however.
She speculated whether the appearance of Finns panhandling in public is a sign of the breakdown of the welfare society. She pointed out that hitting the streets to collect money requires courage and that it is an extreme option — often a last resort.
"If the number of Finns begging increases, I would think that something is very wrong. After the emergence of the welfare state there haven’t really been beggars, but before that, certainly," Mäkinen remarked.
The researcher said she suspects that Finns may have taken a page from the playbook of foreign panhandlers who ply their trade in Finland seasonally.
"Roma beggars have been panhandling in Helsinki for years and have made it more acceptable," she explained.
Meanwhile, the corner of another cardboard sign is peeking out from Harald’s rucksack. When asked about it, he says it’s a business secret, but he shows it anyway. This sign too solicits cash for beer, but indicates that the money is also for a guitar and says the same in English.
"It works on weekends. People think it’s good humour. I change the sign depending on my mood," Harald laughs.