Social Issues

Thousands forced to panhandle amid Venezuela’s severe economic crisis

By Ron Gonzalez

Caracas, Jan 12 (efe-epa).- Tired of walking the streets and begging for food for her four-year-old grandson, Venezuela’s Carmen Bellorin sits near a busy avenue in Caracas in hopes that a compassionate soul will stop by. Any type of charity will be more than welcome, whatever might help fill the young boy’s stomach.

A short while later, her prayers are heard and three people step out of a vehicle carrying clothing and toys – items that her grandchild also needs.

Other people come by later carrying prepared meals. As luck would have it, this time the 45-year-old woman and the small boy only need to open the containers of food and start eating.

“I don’t have anything, it’s true. It makes me sad sometimes to say it. I walk around looking, asking,” Bellorin told Efe after receiving the donations.

Not far away, a score of people gather to receive the same donations of second-hand clothing, toys and ready-to-eat meals.

Like them, thousands of people in Venezuela, a country racked by a years-long economic crisis, take to the streets every day in search of the basic necessities of life.

And the situation has only worsened due to the coronavirus crisis, with the incomes of the poorest members of the population having shrunk amid the government-imposed week-on, week-off lockdown aimed at controlling the spread of Covid-19.

“I’m unemployed. I’m not doing anything at the moment,” Bellorin, a resident of Petare, a giant slum that is part of the Caracas metro area, told Efe when asked why she is forced to beg on the streets.

Some knock on the doors of houses and others look for handouts outside supermarkets or restaurants, where they often are fortunate to receive leftovers or food that has either gone unsold or is approaching expiration.

“Especially on Sundays. I go … to a restaurant where they sell empanadas (stuffed pastries), mainly to ask for the boy, so he can eat,” said Bellorin, who has been taking care of the youngster since his teenage mother stopped providing for him.

One of those helping serve the needs of Venezuela’s neediest is Manuel Santos, a small shopkeeper who tells anyone who will listen that people have an obligation to give some of what they have to the most underprivileged.

“Our motto is give, give, give, to go out every day with something to give to someone; someone will need it,” the 52-year-old told Efe after donating clothing and toys to Bellorin, her grandson and the other group of around 20 people.

In 2016, when thousands of households went hungry amid a peak in the nation’s economic crisis, Santos and his wife, Geraldine Fernandez, joined with friends to donate their extra supplies of food.

That group of five people goes by the name “Bocados de Felicidad” (Mouthfuls of Happiness), although they are not officially a non-governmental organization or a non-profit foundation.

“Registering costs money and we prefer to use the money to donate food,” Fernandez told Efe.

But their charitable work is hindered by a lack of resources. Residents of Petare themselves, Santos and Fernandez lack their own vehicle to transport their donations and receive no assistance from anyone outside their own family.

Their modest circumstances mean they are not in a position to provide any luxuries to their own children aged 11 and 17, who experience a mixture of emotions every time they accompany their parents to donate food, clothing and toys.

“They can’t understand how they give without having, and other people, despite having, don’t give,” Santos said. “They’re surprised.”

Around 700 kilometers (435 miles) from Caracas, in the western state of Zulia (which borders Colombia), street artist Ramon Valera recalls a better time when his work in a local circus allowed him to cover his expenses and his economic situation was “stable.”

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