Poor whites. Picture: REUTERS/FINBARR O'REILLY
Residents of a Krugersdorp squatter camp for poor white South Africans line up for food. Drug addiction is seen to be one of the main reasons why many start begging and end up staying on the streets. Picture: REUTERS/FINBARR O'REILLY

THE white homeless are legion. They stand silent and vacant-eyed with their placards on city intersections that are theirs alone, organised through a complicated proxy of proprietorship.

Each has a tale to tell, laced with whimsy and a faded blueprint of hopes and dreams. Hoping their hand-scrawled signs will evoke sympathy and a handout, the ubiquitous white beggar has become a symbol of an economy on the brink.

New findings by Solidarity trade union’s Helping Hand charity has revealed a "shocking" level of drug addiction in the white homeless community. Solidarity senior researcher Nicolien Welthagen has been delving into the fringe community for more than two years for her PhD. Her findings so far are alarming and tragic.

"In this high level of white unemployment and increasing poverty in a deteriorating economy, there is little or no government assistance for white poor people and few welfare or specialist bodies are investigating and decisively addressing the problem," she says.

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WHILE broken homes, abuse and alcohol dependency by one or both parents are major causes of young people drifting into homelessness, drug addiction is the overwhelming reason why they stay on the streets.

"If I tell you that 90% of white beggars are addicted to drugs I’m not exaggerating," Welthagen reports one of her respondents as saying, "It’s possibly even more. And they get all their money by begging."

Welthagen says: "Many of the respondents (for the research) described the course of their addiction from less dangerous drugs, like dagga and alcohol, to very dangerous drugs and mixtures."

One enduring urban legend is that some beggars amass a fortune. A homeless person has no office overheads; no rent or mortgage to pay; no electricity and water bills; and no rates and taxes. They invariably eat out — at soup kitchens or at Good Samaritan churches.

Welthagen finds the notion entertaining, but highly unlikely. "They all live on the edge," she says. Her probe found that white mendicants earn between R50 and R500 a day.

Media commentator Sibongile Mafu claims white beggars make more money than their black counterparts. "For me," she wrote on her blog, "poverty in SA has a colour and it’s black. All the Helping Hand study reveals is that the world is just kinder to white people, even the downtrodden."

Mafu is convinced that white beggars earn as much as R1,500 a month. A gag among black beggars is that "the white homeless people sleep in their cars".

The Helping Hand research suggests that some beggars want to work, but are not sufficiently educated to obtain reasonably paying work in an economy with 2-million job seekers. About 80% of those interviewed said they would work if they could get a job, while 19% said they’d never worked.

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WELTHAGEN says motorists regard white beggars with mixed feelings, leaning towards pity and the urge to help. She warns of the downside of altruism and says that "giving a little money at the traffic lights exacerbates the problem. The public must learn and appreciate that they have to give correctly."

"Don’t give beggars money. The statistics suggest that 80% of the charity they receive from sympathetic well-wishers goes to buying drugs.

"If you want to be altruistic, give the beggars the phone numbers of Moeggesukkel and Helping Hand and the money to these charities. They’ll make sure it is used for the right purpose — like helping addicts fight drug dependency, assisting shattered families and educating deprived white children."

Welthagen says many white beggars have turned down work opportunities on the grounds that it was demeaning.

"The few who did accept work quit almost immediately, sometimes within a few days, and started begging again."

The Helping Hand probe casts doubt that this is a free and easy life, although some beggars seem more adept at plying their trade than others. The competition in the panhandling business is strong.

Len hunkers down and squats, forearms locked around his knees, and looks completely comfortable.

His jacket and trousers are clean. His shoes are blue and brown Nike knock-offs. He sports a steel-grey stubble. There’s no hot water where he sleeps at night — sometimes on a park bench, other times in the shelter of a copse of trees.

He keeps his beard trimmed with a once-a-week going-over with his nail scissors. The effect is almost one of respectability, although a tell-tale sign of his circumstances is the thin duvet folded and crammed into a shopping bag.

Len’s after some seed capital to get a new enterprise off the ground. "I’m going to Mpumalanga next week," he says. "There’s a guy I know who says he’ll invest some money in a motorbike workshop I’m starting up."

He says that he needs about R50,000 to get the venture going — R30,000 to set up and R20,000 working capital until the business in on its feet.

Len says he was trained at the Honda factory in Japan and is now the only mechanic in SA who is manufacturer-trained to work on Honda racing bikes.

"There’s Honda mechanics around, but none can do a tune-up like me. The bikes don’t talk to them like they talk to me. I’m the only one who understands what they’re saying — what they want."

Len, in his mid-50s, also wants to beat the world speed trial time on a Honda 500.

He calculates he will have to ride most of the 2km distance at more than 400km/h, "but I can do it with a souped-up motor and nitrogen afterburners. If I can set a new world record, that will be good advertising for my workshop."

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HIS dreams are edged with sorrow. "I was supposed to get married," he says, "but my fiancé chickened out at the last minute. I think we can get back together when I’ve got the workshop going and I’m making some bread.

"I’ll build her a house with some cottages on the grounds so she can make an income from rent. I want to have a son. There’s no one to carry on my family name."

Wayne is the quintessential ducker and diver. He can turn a buck from the smallest opportunity. His chief source of income is collecting glass, metal and plastic containers that he loads onto a makeshift trolley. He tugs it through the traffic to a scrapyard, where it will fetch a few rand.

Wayne describes a recent good day at his intersection, where he earned enough to spend R100 on a pair of nearly new boots from a secondhand shop, a packet of fish and chips and a litre of cheap wine.

He fell into a happy sleep on a bench. He awoke in the small hours to find a fellow vagrant taking off his boots. He jumped up and the thief sprinted away with one boot.

"He found me the next day and said I could have my boot back for R50," Wayne says. "I counter-offered to sell him the other one for R50, but he just laughed and said they were too small for him. A day later I had the money and I bought my boot back."

• Wayne and Len did not want their surnames published