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UNEASY STREET : When the Giving Gets Tough, the Homeless Are. . .Still Homeless

January 02, 1994|Patt Morrison

Nothing in the etiquette books offers any help in an encounter like this:

I recently drove out of the newspaper's parking garage, a half-block off Skid Row, and turned up the alley. It was just light enough to see, so with only the two of us there, the homeless man and I naturally saw each other.

And then we looked away. The man was defecating in the alley. Pretending that no one's privacy had been transgressed was the only civility that could be salvaged from the moment.

In the tiled and paneled chambers of City Hall, two blocks from where that man crouched in the twilight, the policy debate natters on: Public toilets or not? Homeless encampments or not?

Outside, we who navigate city streets each day must devise our own homeless policy, one panhandler, one street person at a time.

I have learned to walk wide of the man who sleeps in the ivy next to my vet's office. He cradles a yard-long sharpened stick, and when he is startled, he rears up with it in present-arms position. Everything about him--clothes, skin, hair--is sooty gray. Neighbors leave clean clothes and food, but he pokes around in the trash behind a doughnut shop instead.

Outside my own office, a woman sometimes waits after midnight with a girl no more than 5. "Mommy, I'm hungry, mommy, I'm hungry," the child repeats as people approach. Sometimes I give them money; sometimes I think I should call Children's Services.

Hours earlier, on the same street, a man hunts cans and bottles. I carry out the stuff my office-mates discard. In our symbiotic minuet, I drop it in the trash, and he retrieves it. The recycling makes me happy; the money makes him happy.

Yet none of this satisfies. Like the homeless, the rest of us are sometimes frightened, often frustrated. Over the holidays, I read the "Principles on Panhandling" flyer from the Los Angeles Coalition to End Homelessness. It quotes two rabbis and Martin Luther King Jr. on charity and points out that Buddha and St. Francis lived on alms.

"Principles" balks at recommendations to give money to homeless agencies instead of homeless people. "Principles" must despise those life-sized dolphin statues the CHANGE program has set up outside movie houses and the trailer being shown inside, telling people to drop their spare change in the dolphins rather than give it to panhandlers who, a spokeswoman for the charity says, "could go use it for drinks."

"Principles" deplores aggressive begging but declares "Say No to Panhandling" campaigns are a "big lie." Street people need money, not referrals to services that are already too crowded and hard to reach. It says: "We do not, nor should we, differentiate between a homeless person asking for change from a Girl Scout asking for change."

But I do. We all do. I do it every time I reach for my pocket to give to someone who says "Excuse me" instead of someone whose request carries an implicit, menacing "or else." Every time I hand change to someone who looks more likely to use it for a sandwich than a bottle, I decide who is the "deserving poor."

I do it every time I slip a bill into the hand of an aging, ailing person and not a young, able-looking one. I do it when I give money to a woman instead of a man because I think that being a homeless woman must be one burden too many.

Until recently, I had coins to spare for one woman who hung around a corner near the office. She was quick with a compliment whether you gave her money or not. "Fabulous tie," she told an editor. "Green is your color," she said to me.

But I haven't known what to do since I heard she paid someone $5 to beat the living hell out of a man who she said was "poaching" on her corner. Would I be subsidizing criminal malice? Or is she just the smallest of small businesses, and is the hired thuggery to maintain the monopoly on her "territory" simply the competitive system at its most desperate?

And what has happened to this place, that I can come near to believing that?

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