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To Give or Not to Give? : More Sympathy Than Money for Panhandlers

February 23, 1988|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

--Anatole France, "Le Lys Rouge"

From a street corner opposite the panhandler, the eye frames a tableau-in-progress of lives converging for an instant. In the lunchtime rush around City Hall and the Court House, people with food and business on their minds stream by, averting their eyes as beggars seek the legal tender in their pockets.

On one corner stands a muscular little man with a scrubbed clean face, a soiled T-shirt and slacks, lint in his soft Afro and a panhandling approach based on pit bull aggression.

Some, with compassion written on their faces, acknowledge his presence but say no. Others, annoyed, shake their heads, shake their whole bodies, trying to dodge his dog-at-your-heels presence. He follows them about half a block in any direction before giving up.

A Sheepish Smile

"No habla Ingles? " the panhandler demands. The Spanish-speaking man, backing away from him, smiles sheepishly, insisting that he does not. He is finally left alone.

Avoidance or the truth?

How do you feel when a panhandler approaches you?, the Latin man is asked. But he really doesn't speak English.

"I look for sincerity on the part of the panhandler," offers Millage Peaks, a captain in the Los Angeles Fire Department. The tenacious beggar got nothing from him.

Insufficiently sincere?

"Well, after I told him I didn't have any change he says, 'How about a $20 bill.' So I knew he was hustling."

Peaks says the most he's ever given a panhandler is a dollar. "I'm not rich." But he is never indifferent. "I always think about it," the significance of people in need. "I hope there is a resolution in sight, on the larger social scale."

His dollar alone won't do it, he says. "But I know there's a dollar out there somewhere that could take care of it. I mean, we're sending (money) all across the world and taking care of other people. But we're not really concentrating on our own so much."

What do we really think when confronted by panhandlers, most of whom are homeless, as well: "There but for the grace of God go I"? "For ye have the poor always with you"?

A poll put out this month by the Washington, D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless found that "helping the hungry and homeless was second only to reducing the federal deficit as the problem most Americans want the next President to work on," says Tim Hager, assistant director for the coalition.

The national telephone poll of 1,000 registered voters, conducted in February by the Washington, D.C. research firm, Mellman & Lazarus, found that "83% of Americans agree that it is embarrassing that there are so many homeless and hungry people in the United States," says Hager. And "78% believe that adequate food and housing is a fundamental right."

Further, "57% said that the government should guarantee food and housing to every citizen," says Tim Fuller, executive director of the Campaign to End Hunger and Homelessness--an umbrella group which includes the National Coalition for the Homeless. A "majority" went on to say that they would be willing to pay more taxes to fund such a government effort.

When asked specifically how much more in taxes they would be willing to pay to end hunger and homelessness, the answer was "$100 more," Fuller says.

Concern for the hungry and homeless among those polled cut across political, racial and economic lines, Fuller says.

Hager, of the coalition, says the type of homeless and hungry people the average person most often encounters are the "panhandlers and the more mentally disturbed."

If these people are viewed with "any sort of disdain," he believes it's because their plight hits too close to home. "It frightens people. They feel that they, at any moment, could end up on the streets as well." They are seeing that the population of the homeless has changed "from just panhandling bums . . . (to) a broader range of people. They see that it doesn't take very much to be put in a position where you have to seek assistance."

Back on the street corner, the tenacious panhandler perceived to be insincere says his friends call him Lucky. "But I know I'm blessed."

About the 20 bucks he demanded of the Fire Department captain: "I was joking when I said that." But on the other hand, "I was serious, too. I could eat all week on that. Maybe I'm not coming across as sincere, but I am. I'm hungry." He shifts his short stack of silver coins from hand to hand.

When he came to Los Angeles in 1985 from Chicago he had "$30 to my name." He was sure his training in the Army, "aviation electronics," would net him a good job.

'It's Hard to Get Hired'

But he got robbed of the little he had as soon as he arrived, says Lucky. When he applied for jobs, he had no address. "And what's the second thing they ask you on a job application? If they have no place to contact you," it's hard to get hired.

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