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Buddy, Can You Spare a . . . No!

John Deiner

It's not the easiest topic to address, but there he was, Gavin Newsom, the telegenic mayor of San Francisco, telling several hundred guests yesterday at a luncheon about what he perceives as a major problem in his fair city: panhandling.

The mayor was in town with a posse of hotel and tourism honchos promoting the city, which he clearly adores and knows well, having grown up there. But in between all the hype (we have the best this, the newest that, the prettiest this and that), I was struck by his honesty regarding people begging for money in the streets. He noted that it's a serious problem, and that even he's subjected to it.

Newsom noted that the city has plans to help ease the problem, which he said was particularly evident in major tourist areas (which makes sense). He's not alone in his concerns. According to a poll of Bay Area residents released March 1, panhandling is among the top concerns for San Franciscans.

I haven't been in San Francisco in a few years, but I'll be traveling there in May and I'm interested in seeing how bad the situation is. Can it really be worse than D.C.? Who among us hasn't averted our eyes to avoid a panhandler on the street? And who among us hasn't gotten really irked when the panhandler became abusive or wouldn't go away?

We recently ran a piece on how travelers respond to begging children in Third World nations, an issue that brings up a lot of difficult questions. I've both given and not, and it's always a heart-wrenching decision.

But panhandling? I have to admit, I rarely fork over cash to someone in D.C. or other U.S. cities holding their hands out. Whether a city with a particularly bad problem would keep me from visiting again, though, is an interesting question, and I'm eager to see for myself what it's like in the City by the Bay. What would you do? Are there places you won't go to because of an abundance of panhandlers?

By John Deiner |  March 14, 2007; 2:59 PM ET  | Category:  John Deiner
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Well, since America decided all of our mentally ill were a burden on society under Reagan, we're going to have to deal with throngs on our streets. It's one of America's biggest embarassments (outside of Iraq).

Now - they're a "problem". Most of them are sick. We should be taking care of them.

One way to judge a society is how it treats its less fortunate. America fails this test.

Glad to know you can't find it in your heart to help.

Posted by: Someone has to help. | March 14, 2007 2:47 PM

I sometimes purchase food and/or non-alcoholic beverages for panhandlers. I don't give them money, because they might use it for alcohol or drugs.

Some supermarkets have arrangements at the checkstand where you can donate money which goes to feed low income people. Perhaps the Combined Federal Campaign (C.F.C.) charity campaign may donate money to feed low income people. The federal govenment operates the C.F.C. to collect money for charity, from both military and non-military employees.

Posted by: Dominick | March 14, 2007 2:53 PM

One way to help these unfortunates is to determine, via aptitude or IQ testing, whether the ones who aren't mentally ill and who have such endurance to handle heat and cold can be given vo-tech training and job counseling. Then they can go find and perform work, and become active members of society, with voting rights, jury duty and taxpaying requirements.
In addition, if the Armed Forces are really starving for new recruits, how about recruiting panhandlers. These people have that kind of stamina. LOL!
Regarding the folks overseas, I fear the Gypsy kids who steal from tourists on city streets, and wonder why they can't be converted to Italian citizenship, thereby making them subject to school requirements. LOL :-)

Posted by: | March 14, 2007 3:05 PM

San Francisco has a longstanding reputation as one of the worst cities for panhandlers. Perhaps I'm just used to it in D.C., but I was surprised that the writer apparently though D.C. was among the worst.

Posted by: Josh | March 14, 2007 3:06 PM

To "someone has to help": I agree, it's shameful that there are so many homeless on the streets of our country, and government needs to do more. But some of the homeless won't take the help that is offered, sometimes because they are too mentally ill, and sometimes because they've simply made the choice to stay independent and live by their wits. I think that's a silly choice, but I can't tell other people not to make it. I give as much money as I can to charities that will help those who want the help, and I don't think I'm a monster because I choose not to subsidize a fellow citizen's drug habit/choice to live on the streets.

So I can't call Gavin Newsom a monster for trying to minimize panhandling.

Posted by: csdiego | March 14, 2007 3:06 PM

To "Someone has to help": Does your office or civic group participate in a service project that makes sandwiches each week for an organization that serves the homeless? Mine does. Do you give to charities that work with the homeless and underserved in our community? I do. Have you ever stopped to buy a sandwich or a cup of coffee for a homeless person? I have. So don't you dare say I don't have it in my heart to help because I refuse to give cash to panhandlers. There is more than one answer for this issue.

Posted by: Arlington | March 14, 2007 3:47 PM

ST has a panhandling problem BECAUSE people give to panhandlers. DON'T DO IT!

Posted by: SF | March 14, 2007 3:58 PM

I'll be a tourist in SF this May. Panhandling is bad, period. In my experience virtually all panhandlers are just hustlers. People with chronic schizophrenia don't become skilled panhandlers. As a previous poster points out, panhandlers refuse help from 'the system' because of the strings attached. We need to refuse all panhandlers and force them to either give up, or enter the system.

Posted by: jim h | March 14, 2007 4:40 PM

To the first Reagan basher, the reason that people with mental problems are on the street is not Reagan's fault, it is the fact that our wonderful lawyers helped the mentally ill sue and get their freedom out of nuthouses so we don't have people being incarcertaed against their will!. I worked for food banks for years in North Arlington, many homeless suffer from mental problems and they would rather be outside where they have their freedom. If you want to give them money, then give them money, if you don't want to give then don't give and live with your decision! We shouldn't say that we need to get them off the streets so that we don't have to make the decision!

Posted by: Falls Church, VA | March 14, 2007 4:46 PM

I lived in NYC during the '80s, and even I was surprised by the extend of panhandling in San Francisco. In the Union Square area, there are often several per block, and they can be aggressive and rude. In the Haight, surly teenage runaways curse or make sarcastic comments if you pass them by. Whether these are poor unfortunates or just hustlers, it becomes a quality of life issue for those who live in and visit the city.

Here's a pitch for D.C. tourism: our panhandlers are courteous! All the "regulars" along my commute are polite and usually offer a greeting even if you choose not to contribute.

Posted by: JR | March 14, 2007 4:52 PM

I was just in San Francisco and the begging is pretty out of control. Most tourist locations, parks and stores have people dressed in rags with cups out begging for money. It's a little scary.

The worst begger I encountered, however, I met within 5 seconds of driving into the city. Octavia Street is a mess, but some cop decided I didn't obey the right signs and gave me a $150 ticket. When I said I looked at the signs carefully and couldn't decide what they were indicating, he said I should argue my case in traffic court. Of course, he knew I was from out of town and wasn't likely to fly back to San Francisco over a traffic ticket. Now I wonder if I ever should go back to that place.

Posted by: Rick | March 14, 2007 4:58 PM

Back in my beloved old home town of Chicago last fall, I was approached by a begger every time I left my hotel. One was a harmless but talkative guy with a rake who wanted to clean up my yard, and who engaged me for an entire block. At night it was a menacing man with a long story needing money, and so on. It was annoying to a senior who felt unable to defend himself on the near north side.

Posted by: Bartolo | March 14, 2007 5:40 PM

Yeah, there are probably more panhandlers in San Francisco. The weather is pretty mild year-round, which probably helps.

Only in DC, however, has a panhandler either a) physically assaulted me, or b) yelled racist epithets at me.

Posted by: Julia | March 14, 2007 9:21 PM

Before hitting the streets of San Francisco I load my backpack with small packs of peanuts and raisins, etc. Anyone asking me for money is offered some food. Some aren't interested, some are extremely thankful.

I don't know each person's reason for panhandling, but for those who are truly hungry, I want to do at least a little to help make that day better. I know my day always is improved by doing this.

Posted by: Cookie | March 15, 2007 8:12 AM

Boston beggars are the worst. I lived there for two years and have so many tales about them, I could write a book. My personal faves:
1. The guy who would fall asleep outside Lord and Taylor every afternoon and piss himself. Then it would run across the slope of the sidewalk so everyone stepped in it.
2. The guys who made a killing opening the door for everyone at Dunkin Donuts. If you were new on the block, you had to work the Store 24 door as some sort of apprenticeship.
3. I once gave food to a homeless man in the dead of winter. Half a block past him I heard him yell 'I don't like cheese!' I turned around just in time to see him launch his dinner onto Boylston St.
The list goes on....

Posted by: alan | March 15, 2007 9:52 AM

Yes, there are places I won't go because of the abundance of panhandlers/street people. I live in the Bronx, but Portland, Oregon, was a bit too much for me: the panhandlers were a sizeable part of my decision not to move out there last year. Seattle also has really pushy homeless people, at least downtown.

I never give money, but will occasionally give food if I happen to have something (or leftover sandwiches from a meeting or some such). Only exception is if somebody has a really good street performance act, which occasionally you will encounter on the subway - then I might give some change.

Posted by: BxNY | March 15, 2007 11:40 AM

In response to "someone has to help." Stop the Reagan bashing. The asylums were emptied during the Carter administration.

Posted by: Juggler | March 15, 2007 1:41 PM

Most of you seem to be "annoyed" by these people. I hate to be the one to break it to you but they have every right to be out in public and whether or not they "annoy" you is quite irrelevant.

I've never given to a beggar or a charity for that matter and I'm pretty proud of that fact. I grew up as a welfare baby, a leech on your tax dollars, so you'd think I'd try to return the favor now that I'm working and making decent money. Quite the contrary, growing up poor taught me that life is an all out every man for himself free for all and I've gotta keep what's mine and look out for myself above all others. It's about survival at all costs. Beggars are simply trying to survive using the resources available to them.

The only thing that surprises me is that beggars don't seem to turn to crime at a very high rate. Frankly they should as stealing etc. is a much more efficient means of wealth transfer than asking for money and taking whatever people happen to give.

I guess a beggar is just an unmotivated criminal. Pity.

Posted by: Hmm | March 15, 2007 5:23 PM

A couple of times a month, just so I do not feel totally heartless, I will offer to buy food (a cheap fast food meal) for some one who asks for money for that purpose, and does so politely. About one time in four the offer is turned down.

Since I also keep a couple of pre-paid bus tickets in my wallet they will be offered when I'm hit with "trying to get bus fare to get home" pitches. That gets turned down more often than not and I've been cursed very inventively for not just giving cash.

I live in Sacramento and there are areas I will not visit in SF just because of the aggressive panhandlers. Mr. Newsom is right about the extent of the problem.

Not really interested in providing a subsidy for drugs or alcohol.

Posted by: Mark | March 16, 2007 12:51 PM

please, we are supposed to pretend there is hope for these animals? put them down.

Posted by: Put Them Down | March 16, 2007 3:31 PM

A previous poster said "whether or not they "annoy" you is quite irrelevant".

I'm baffled by statements like this. Obviously it's a matter of degree, but there's a point where panhandling becomes a form of assault. Behaving in a bizarre and threatenning manner, walking next to me and talking or yelling after I've said "no", or making physical contact, are things that amount to assault.

Posted by: jim h | March 16, 2007 4:04 PM

Question: "Can it really be worse than DC?"

Short Answer: "Yes."

Long Answer: "YES."

There's hardly any comparison. And the SF ones tend to get more abusive if you try ignoring them.

Posted by: DC/SF splitter | March 19, 2007 11:14 AM

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