They stand at every street corner. There is no escaping them. Have you noticed that over the past 12 to 18 months there are no traffic signals without them? Who are THEY? I’m talking of course about those irritating wannabe homeless people with signs. “Will Work For Food” “Homeless Vet. Please Help” “At least I am Honest. Need Money For Beer” etc etc. Well, the truth of the matter is, they are not homeless. Indeed. they are far from needing anything, at least not from us. Now, let me clarify that last statement by confirming that I have not, nor will I ever, be able to go and interview each and every one of them. Quite impossible. But, from the research I have done, virtually all on site up close and personal, and the experience I have had, not trusting anything I was told, I have discovered that 95% of these ‘con-men’ and women are completely disingenuous with regards their financial circumstance and living accommodation. No surprise there, I here you shout. Well, what might come as a surprise is how these panhandlers are organized, how they are chosen and lastly, how they are rewarded. No, they don’t get to keep all they receive, far from it. Let me explain.
Just like prostitution, there are needs and there are desires. Everyone has them, everyone wants them, in this case, money, or lack of, is of course the main catalyst for the propulsion of such an energetic transformation of our normally mundane landscape. Over the past few years, due to the economic slow down and instability in the work place, most of us have become accustomed to seeing more and more of our friends and relatives losing their jobs and being unable to find employment. This has led to desperation, isolation and lastly, deception. All of these factors placed alongside a somewhat alternative and affluent society, especially here in the San Francisco Bay area, leads to this insane form of entrepreneurship, perhaps better described as criminal behavior, that we see at every traffic light and street corner. My father used to say, ‘it’s not the way you make a living that counts, it’s that you indeed make a living!’ Perfectly true, only in this case, organized crime is right behind what we witness through our windshields when we stop to make a perfectly legal left or right turn.
Last week, outside Safeway here in Los Gatos CA, a town where the average salary is probably 7 figures and where anyone driving anything but a Bentley, Porsche or Ferrari, is commonly ‘scoffed’ at, sat a gentleman dressed in army fatigues, aka Desert Storm vintage. He sat slumped at the front door, holding a sign which read, “Homeless Vet. Please Help” written on a piece of card, 12 x 12. Been there, seen that, and sometimes, though not always, I have given, and given willingly. There was something about this man however that made me look twice. In my experience, shoes are the great leveler. From my time being homeless in San Francisco, I learnt that shoes tell not only a great story, but also an accurate story as well. If a person asking for money has on shoes that look newish, or indeed are in reasonable condition, chances are, homelessness is far from something they are experiencing. If their shoes are in tatters, homelessness is almost guaranteed. Homeless people cannot get shoes that easily, and they tend to wear what they can find or scavenge. Also, truly homeless men, women and children, should they be able to find a decent pair of shoes, will guard them with their lives. Try taking the shoes from someone who has no place to live and see what happens. I promise you it won’t be pleasant. And so, when I looked into his face, a tearful face, and one that looked very distressed, I couldn’t figure out exactly what was going on, a sure sign from within my heart that something was amiss with this so-called homeless Vet. True to form, after a long gaze and eye contact that seemed to last minutes and not seconds, which it really was, this gentleman picked up his sign, wiped the tears from his face and made his way downstairs into the underground parking lot. Curious as ever, I followed. Sitting in a spot, right at the back of the lot, a reasonably new Ford Explorer, and guess who jumped into that vehicle and drove off at the speed?
Just like those who stand in broad daylight at every street corner, this was an organized affair. These people, who claim to have little or nothing, are not who they seem to be. Another point to consider is that they are controlled by ‘pimps’ who determine who stands where and for how long. If you have a keen eye, and fortunately I was blessed with one, alongside a good memory, and you take the time to drive around the most popular spots in my hometown, you’ll see that most of the panhandlers are rotated on a two hourly ‘shift’ basis. What this does is ‘freshen’ up the workforce and of course, because they stand at traffic signals and cars passing them by rarely, if ever, come back the same way, they can keep their cash coming in with almost absolute confidence of never being seen twice or recognized again on any particular day. And what happens to that cash? Well, that’s a very good question.
After talking to one or two of those would be ‘pretenders’, I discovered that this many making racket is being controlled by gangs, and in particular, gangs who remain local and reside within 15 minutes of each catchment area. The ‘faces’ paraded on every street corner are also controlled. They ‘donate’ willingly to their ‘pimps’ on the understanding that if they don’t, well, we all know what happens in gangland when a pimp is disobeyed! By the sheer precision of this regimented system, you and I, the general public, are continually fooled into believing that these poor souls we see at the stop signs are genuinely in need of help. It’s just not the case. In fact, giving to these people really detracts from the real homeless issue that lies out there, unabated. We are giving to those who don’t really need, and those who do are going without. Hence my admiration for all those volunteers who are out on the streets trying to locate and to confirm and then register those who are really homeless and those who are not. My only hope is that they succeed in their task, a task that is often hazardous and difficult. In the meantime, my suggestion to all of you when you stop at a light and are approached by a man or woman with a sign looking for help, is to politely decline. This is a racket, and a racket that needs to be stopped. Instead it seems to be spreading far and wide across not only our state, but the whole country. The people behind these schemes are taking our money, tax-free, and indeed some of them are living quite comfortable lives from the proceeds of our ‘donations’. When I was living alone for that one week I went homeless up in San Francisco, I met a gentleman, who shall remain forever in my thoughts, who came into town every day in his Lexus, parked at Safeway in Daly City, got on BART (the local subway train) to the Embarcadero and after taking in $300 to $500 cash on a daily basis, would return back to Daly City and drive home in his Lexus to his nice house in the suburbs. All his money was tax-free and he had no qualms about what he was doing and how he was doing it. He was very good at his ‘job’ as seen by the amounts he collected, but he, like all the others who are con-men, were taking money away, easy money, from those who genuinely needed it. He had no regrets, and I’m sure the rest of them don’t have many either. The issue could be stopped through education. Education of us, the masses, teaching each and every one of us how to spot a fraudster, although, that is probably an impossible task, but a task that could start by a simple look at a pair of shoes.
As I’ve mentioned before. When is doubt, politely decline, and if you still feel the need to give, which we almost always do, do so without feeling like you’ve been bullied. Go to your local homeless shelter and donate directly to them. They need and cherish every single penny you can afford to give and they appreciate it too! You will do so knowing that your cash is going straight into a system that can feed and help those who are genuinely down on their luck and it will assist in supporting their rehabilitation and not the empire building of any pimp.