Wednesday, November 15, 2006


There's a thread going on the Straight Dope right now about whether giving money to homeless people helps them or hurts them. While I don't think I have enough knowledge about the issue to have an informed opinion, it made me think about how much one part of my self changed after growing up in Small Rural Town and then going to college at Berkeley.

I started UC Berkeley as a freshman in the fall of 1996. There were times that I would see homeless people or beggars, both in the streets of Berkeley and on campus, and I always felt sorry for them. Within a couple of months of living in Berkeley, I had become so jaded from the wearing-down of my bleeding heart liberal sensibilities that I pretty much decided I'd never give money to street people again.

First, there were the self-styled gutter punks. The kids who may have been runaways but were more likely just skipping school (Berkeley has ONE public high school with thousands of kids; I'm sure it's easy to get away from campus when you're just a number and not a face/name). These kids would lounge on Telegraph, smoking stinky cigarettes or pot, and wore Docs and dirty, yet stylish, punk clothing. Their hair colors ranged from those found in nature to those only found in a crayon box and styles varied equally as well. Many of these kids had puppies that then grew into dogs, and while I eventually hardened my heart to the gutter punks I always felt badly for their dogs growing up on the street. They'd ask for spare change, make fun of people walking down Telegraph, blow smoke in your face and prop up cardboard signs asking for change for pot or beer or whatever. I got the feeling that many of them just thought it was cool to scam people out of money; none of them ever looked me in the eye and connected as a fellow human being, and if you're going to ask for my money I'm going to need some kind of reassurance that you really need it.

There were other spare-changers on Telegraph, some of whom were obviously hungry and/or homeless - the guy who smelled like a dumpster, wearing shoes with no toes, with crazy matted hair, walking straight and tall up and down the street is one I remember in particular. Other panhandlers had their normal stomping grounds - the blond guy with a reddish face who always wore a black jacket despite the weather would sit at one of the entrances to the BART station downtown. I saw this old lady who always wore sparkly sequined hats panhandling in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, and she'd always ask for change for the bus, day or night.

But the ones on campus were the worst. There was this one guy who would nearly assault people with his aural presence, almost screaming about how hungry he was. One time he came up to me and told me how hungry he was. I was a poor college freshman trying to save my meal plan dollars and so I only ate twice a day, but I had an orange on me and offered it to him. "Oh, no!" he said. "I can only use money, not food." He wandered off and I thought, if he was really hungry he would have taken the orange. There was an obese lady who would wander around campus, wailing, crying, sometimes selling the homeless newspaper. A few times I saw her with her son, who seemed more and more annoyed the older he got. But most of the time tears would be streaming down her face and she'd be bemoaning her homeless state, "Oh, I'm so hungry! I need money to feed my poor son!" she'd cry. I felt kind of bad for her and felt worse for her son, until one day I was on the bus going to visit some friends in Oakland and that lady was also on the bus. I overheard her conversation with a friend that made me so angry I almost started yelling at her. "I've had such a long day," she said. "I can't wait to go home, put my feet up, and get high."
So not only was she not homeless, she obviously wasn't hungry (it's hard to stay obese if you're hungry, I think), and she was spending her hard-earned panhandler money (and the money people paid for the Street Sheet) on drugs. Not food for her kid. I was so mad.

That was pretty much the last straw. I never gave money, even small change, to panhandlers in Berkeley again (except one time I gave $5 to the blind guy who sat on the corner near my place on Berkeley Way, but I have a totally different story about that guy). I did (and still do) give money to buskers if I happen to have some on hand and I find them entertaining - but then I'm paying them for a service they're providing, so it's totally different. The Berkeley campus is never short of buskers, whether it be those who have gone before (Eddie the Drummer at the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, Rick Starr with his microphone and his Nestle Quik Can), or Smokey or hate man, who I think are still around. Plus all the kids in the bands that are touring around, or the old blind Chinese man playing his weird Chinese stringed instrument.

I lived in Berkeley until January 2, 2003, so that's over 6 years, plus I've gone back two or three times a year every year since. The same panhandlers are in the same places, with the same stories. Things don't seem to change. I don't know if the the city of Berkeley, bastion of liberalism (the city council is made up of liberals and uber-liberals who fight with each other), knows what to do with the homeless and/or panhandler population. I know for a while they would sell fast food and pet food vouchers to people who wanted to help the gutter punks, and instead of giving them change you'd give them these vouchers so they could feed their dogs. That's a good program, I think. But if you're a panhandler who makes enough money to NOT be homeless, and stay obese, and get high whenever you want, what incentive do you have to stop panhandling?


Anonymous said...

David Sedaris has a great essay about being a hippie spare changer dude; his stint lasted a few weeks.
Remember the article in Denver's Westword about the "sign people?"
One guy was clearing some $200 a week just standing there holding a sign.
I guess places like Berkley and Boulder are conducive to marginalized type folks...the mild climate, the liberal attitude etc. I still give money and/or food sometimes, but it's not like I see "regulars." That would indeed harden my bleeding heart.

Leah said...

This is crazy. The blonde guy with the red face? I haven't seen him at the BART station in a while and I'm kind of worried about him. The blind guy up the street? I haven't walked that way in about a month, but I'm sure he's still hanging around.

I don't give to panhandlers but instead donate part of my tax refund to a local food bank. I feel better about it that way.