Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/1/2015 (2284 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
For anyone thinking Winnipeg has a problem with panhandlers, consider this: During a Christmas trip to Sweden, I could not enter a grocery store, mall or liquor outlet without being confronted by beggars.
It was shocking. I have visited the country regularly for 23 years and have often marvelled at the strength of the country's social safety net and the public atmosphere that it created.
It was rare to see a person destitute or asking for money on the street because there are entrenched rights to shelter and other social support.
However, in the past two years thousands of beggars have flooded into Sweden. Most of them come from Romania, according to government authorities, and can visit Sweden thanks to the European Union's freedom of movement rights.
They started in major cities such as Stockholm, but have subsequently fanned out across the country.
I encountered them in Alings*s, a sleepy town of about 40,000 people in southwestern Sweden.
They camped out at store entrances, one person outside and another just inside the front doors. They blanketed high-traffic areas, such as the town's only liquor store and every grocery store. They were highly organized, using mobile phones to communicate and taking shifts at the begging posts. I saw one person being visited by his children -- the kids making a trip to see daddy at work.
To a foreigner, their purpose was clear -- to take advantage of the better nature of Swedes.
This behaviour simply would not be allowed in Canada. Private owners of stores and malls would kick them off the property. Most people would react with hostility once they realized the begging was an organized activity that "employs" members of a specific group.
In Sweden, there has been a lot of debate and hand-wringing about what should be done. The government has tried to engage Romania, saying the government should try to improve living conditions there so fewer people leave to beg elsewhere in Europe.
A growing number of Swedes, fed up with this kind of activity by foreigners, have turned to the Swedish Democrats, a far-right, anti-immigration party that won 14 per cent of the seats in the country's parliament in elections last year.
That was enough power for the Swedish Democrats to upset the political system in Stockholm, breaking with tradition to vote down a government budget.
The party is seen as such a threat that all other parties have agreed to what is essentially a truce lasting to 2022 -- whichever political bloc has the most support will be able to form government and pass a budget, knowing opponents other than the Democrats will abstain from voting on the budget.
The beggars are not the only reason behind the rise of the Swedish Democrats. But they are a highly visible symbol that has become a focus for the dissatisfaction felt by increasing numbers of Swedes with the status quo.
Contrast this with panhandling in Winnipeg, where the forces behind begging are usually poverty, homelessness, addictions and mental illness. Yes, these are serious and major issues for our community and we need to do more to address them. But they are not threatening to upset our political system.
Bob Cox is publisher of the Free Press.