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'Beggarman Troll'

A Heartfelt Essay Brings a Second Chance to a College Grad-Turned-Artful Panhandler Known as the ...

September 08, 2002|JOHN M. GLIONNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN FRANCISCO — Rail-thin, with soulful gray eyes and wielding a wooden cane, Josh Brandon was a panhandler in a city where the artful street grift is performed by hundreds of homeless residents.

But the 53-year-old was unlike most: an educated man without drug or psychiatric problems who stumbled into a life of poverty when he lost a job in 1999.

Also unlike most, he has set his life right again, employing skills he learned as a college history major and as a working professional.

For nearly three years, Brandon worked the streets. Like a fly fisherman casting into a pool of passing trout, he knew how to reel in money from the wallets of strangers. He went at his task with the focus he would a 9-to-5 job.

He had a cardinal rule--he never asked for money. Instead, he merely greeted passersby to establish a contact he hoped would carry over to the next meeting. It was all part of his daily need, he later wrote, to "psychologically convince myself that I am not begging."

After years of living beneath a bridge and suffering declining health and the daily pain of a bum hip, Brandon resolved last spring to write his way off the streets.

In an essay published in Street Sheet, the city's handout paper for the homeless, he chronicled his panhandling pursuits, standing with his donation cup at a favorite spot near Pac Bell Park.

"I know that I am not the village drunk or the village idiot, but when I am working, I do become the village greeter," Brandon explained. "I never ask the people who pass by for anything, but simply say, 'Good morning, sir (or ma'am), and smile. I never sit down, so I can look them directly in the eye with as much pride and confidence as I can pull up from deep inside."

One San Francisco lawyer saw the story--"The Life and Times of a Beggarman Troll"--and took Brandon at his word. In May, his firm offered him a job using his communication skills.

Now Brandon helps draft letters to insurance companies, seeking settlements on injury cases. His new employers reason that if he can humanize homeless people, he can inspire cynical insurance adjustors.

"We looked beyond Josh's status to hire the beggarman troll," said lawyer Chris Dolan. "What we got in turn was a capable man who knows the value of a paycheck, who has taken advantage of a chance to change his life."

Experts say three of four homeless people suffer from drug, alcohol or mental illness problems. But 20% of the 800,000 homeless nationwide have jobs and work at least 20 hours a week, they add.

In San Francisco, a city searching its conscience for solutions to the problem of a growing indigent population, many say Brandon's success offers hope for other homeless people.

"Josh is an example of street people with brains, skills and passion," said Paul Boden, director of San Francisco's Coalition on Homelessness. "There are more people out there like him than you'd think."

Supervisor Gavin Newsom is sponsoring an initiative on the November ballot to cut general assistance payments to the homeless by four-fifths. His "Care, Not Cash" measure would trim one of the nation's most generous stipends from $320 a month to $59, replacing the cash with the promise of equivalent spending on housing and services.

While polls show that a majority of residents favor the plan, Newsom has been criticized by people such as attorney Dolan. "Why doesn't the city work harder to hire some of these most competent homeless people?" Dolan said. "Maybe it should be 'Jobs, Not Cash.' ''

Newsome agrees: "Job programs are a weakness in our homeless services."

As a panhandler, Brandon befriended people who passed him by countless times before dropping coins into his cup and, finally, responding to his daily greetings to strike up a conversation.

People such as banker Bob Sipp.

"I must have walked by him a dozen times and he always said hello. He had this coffee cup, but he never asked for money," Sipp recalled. "One day, I looked into the cup and noticed there wasn't any coffee. And it didn't look like there had ever been any coffee."

Sipp said, "You need help?"

Brandon smiled.

The Beggarman Troll had made another friend.

Born in Chehalis, Wash., Brandon graduated magna cum laude from the University of Washington with a degree in history in 1972 and spent two years working on a master's degree. But he never finished. Instead, he traveled the country for different jobs, including stints as a corporate trouble-shooter and office manager for a Washington state senator.

He married and divorced. He came to San Francisco in the late 1980s, and was taken by the number of homeless people in the city's run-down Tenderloin District. That interest led him to a job as office manager at the local newspaper, the Tenderloin Times, and he began writing stories on the plight of the city's street dwellers.

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