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Orlando Sentinel

Tropical Climate Helps Lure U.S. Panhandlers

By Pedro Bosque | EFE

October 28, 2001
Copyright © 2001
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Many of the estimated 10,000 beggars who wander the streets of Puerto Rican cities and towns come to the island from the United States, enticed by the tropical climate and the traditional hospitality of the people.

Puerto Rican authorities say that the increase in panhandlers who speak only English is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Social workers charged with evaluating the U.S.-born beggars were somewhat surprised to discover that most "did not know" they were in Puerto Rico.

Many said their only recollection was "boarding a plane" at some U.S. airport.

Whether they are from the United States or the island, day-to-day life for beggars in Puerto Rico is a far cry from their fantasy of a Caribbean paradise of sun and sand.

Many beggars live under bridges or in the entrances to businesses or office buildings, where they try to rest at night, in constant danger of being evicted by the police.

The climate in Puerto Rico allows these mendicants to sleep outdoors with little risk of catching a cold, but the danger of being assaulted or harassed by those who shun the poor is always present.

Recent government studies indicate that most of the island's beggars are concentrated in San Juan and the island's largest cities.

Statistics also show that at least half of these mendicants come from small cities and towns in Puerto Rico.

The majority of the beggars decide to settle in the capital to take advantage of the social services provided by the government or nongovernmental organizations, which offer food, clothing, overnight shelter, restrooms, medical services and even a place to put personal belongings.

San Juan Mayor Jorge Santini complained that "beggars are brought here from other towns on the island" to receive these benefits.

Some city governments order their police departments to make frequent sweeps to keep these people off their streets.

In May, during the Miss Universe pageant in Bayamón, west of San Juan, many panhandlers were put on municipal police buses and taken to other cities to avoid tarnishing the location's image, according to what the beggars themselves later reported.

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