Visible Poverty

One question that Americans often ask me is whether I see homeless people in Lithuania.  Coming from Seattle, which has a large homeless population — many of whom actually live on the street — I have been a bit surprised that I don’t see homeless people in Vilnius or Kaunas.  At least, I don’t see people who are obviously homeless in that they are sleeping in doorways with piles of blankets and a tattered bag of their possessions.  This doesn’t necessarily mean that there aren’t homeless people; they may not be in the areas of the city that I am in.

Elderly people have been especially hard-hit because pensions are barely enough to live on.  It is not uncommon to see elderly women begging in front of churches, although there seem to be fewer now than in the 1990s.  There are a few children begging and a few disabled people and a few guys who are scam artists (some I even recognize from two years ago).  I think that there is also still a lot of poverty in rural parts of Lithuania.  Beginning in the spring, I have seen more people digging through trash dumpsters both in my neighborhood in Kaunas and in Vilnius – something I noticed in 2009 as well.

Through my limited involvement with the International Women’s Association of Vilnius, I know that there are many charitable organizations providing food, housing, clothing and other services for the poor.  I know that there is still a lot of poverty in Lithuania.  For reasons I can’t completely explain, it doesn’t seem to be that visible.  Perhaps that is the worst kind of poverty because it is the easiest to ignore.

About amanda

Creating academic and public environments for the humanities to flourish Researching Soviet and Eastern European history Engaging people and ideas as a writer and interviewer Traveling as much as possible View all posts by amanda

5 responses to “Visible Poverty

  • Daiva

    Homelessness is quite visible in Lithuania. In summer, most homeless people choose some routes in the city where they walk from sleeping places to other places where they can get food. They collect bottles and metal from trash and earn some money from that. In winter time it’s very tough for them, and several people usually die each year. Homeless people, unless able to secure a hole in central heating system buildings/ undergrounds/ anywhere close to pipes to get in whenever they need to, are struggling for survival on a daily basis, because it can get very cold. Many choose to ride public transport until they are kicked out, or occupy staircases in apartment buildings (often to the anger and frustration of people living in those apartments, due to smell, pets that homeless people bring, hygiene considerations and tense relationships). Some homeless people stay close to dumpsters and look for metals, bottles, anything that can be sold.

    In rural areas there are many poor people, but at the same time it is easier to have just enough for survival. There are many empty houses, left behind by families of which the younger generations moved to cities and the elderly were too old/sick to take care of themselves or died. So, an able-bodied homeless person can find some firewood and live in this kind of abandoned house quite comfortably. They can offer their labor when it is needed in agriculture, or ask for / steal a vegetable or two from the fields. So cities are richer, but they are also the places where people may actually go hungry most of the time.

    One problem is that many homeless people suffer from complex and severe addictions to alcohol and/or drugs, which makes them ineligible for shelters, run by charities and public institutions (people have to be sober to be hosted).

    • amanda

      Thanks for the explanation of the manifestation of homelessness in Lithuania. It sounds like many of the conditions and issues are the same as the ones faced by the homeless in the US.

    • Litlocal

      “…One problem is that many homeless people suffer from complex and severe addictions to alcohol and/or drugs…”

      This is a main reason of homelessness itself. Everyone is free to choose (+/-), and those people chose to be alcoholics and, as a result, to live in poverty. Those who made some needful effort were able to cut with that and (how surprisingly it may sound) ceased to be alcoholics, started to live normal life, and at least one (whom i know) became a pop star.
      What i sometimes hear from the westerners is a fictional idea that eastern-europeans (some of them) live in poverty because they could not come to terms with the capitalist society as they are used only to soviet system. Nonsense 😀 .

      • amanda

        There are many reasons for poverty and for homelessness, and of course a full discussion would be outside the scope of this blog. While east European poverty might in some situations be a consequence of the Soviet system, it certainly isn’t a sufficient explanation — just look at poverty in the United States. One example would be the shut-down of Soviet factories that were unsustainable with no other sources of employment available in the locality once the factory is gone.

  • eddie

    Lithuania’s capital introduced a ban on panhandling that not only punishes those who beg but those who give, with fines of up to 2,000 litas ($770).

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