By Gustaf Berger / Special to the Gazette
As you stroll along Centre Street on a sunny day past City Feed, CVS, and Citizens Bank, how many panhandlers do you notice?
Over the past couple of years, I’ve counted more than 20 different men and women asking for a handout. We’re not unique; panhandlers inhabit every city in the US. There are no reliable statistics of how many. Here as elsewhere many are sheltered, some are homeless. According to the Urban Institute, 3.5 million people are homeless, most for short periods, but only a fraction panhandle on the streets.
I interviewed ten men and two women, aged 27 to 62 to learn more about them and why they panhandle. I asked about their lives, histories, living conditions, habits, ambitions, and challenges. Most were eager to answer my questions. Though I offered ten dollars, two other men refused the opportunity. Three more were too incoherent to be interviewed.
While there were similarities, each of the twelve had a unique story.
I’d learned to avoid Sharon* whose blank stare when asking for money and outbursts when refused were unnerving. This time, I sought her out for an interview, and we sat at an outdoor table at JP Licks for privacy. She was dressed in shabby clothes and chain-smoked as she talked. She’d freeze and stare blankly into space.
When I asked her age, she paused, as she did after every question. “I don’t know,” she said and paused again. “It’s not 2018. We’re in the future.” She looked away and said no more about it. She also seemed confused about her name.
She grew up in Mattapan and lives in a group home. Her education ended in the 7th grade, the least educated of the interviewees. She answered most of my 40 questions but wouldn’t or couldn’t tell me about her mental problems, though she listed psychiatric medications she takes. When asked about her childhood dreams, she couldn’t remember. Never married, she couldn’t remember the last time she had a boyfriend, wasn’t sure she ever had one. She didn’t know where her problems began, but she remembered attending Alateen (12-step) meetings as a child.
When I asked what she would like to do, she got dreamy eyed and talked about many possibilities: a laundress in a nursing home, a job she’d held long ago, an English teacher, lawyer, actress, tutor to teenage girls and, more than anything, “I want to marry a rich man and live in a big, big house, where I’d install a VHS player.”
When I rose to leave, she asked me to stay and talk for a couple of minutes. She’s lonely; how could I refuse? I sat back down. She stared at me with a hopeful expression and asked, “Are you married?” When I told her I was, she turned away and took a drag on her cigarette. “Are you happily married?”
Smitty* and I exchange greetings every time I pass. Occasionally I put a dollar in his cup. He’s polite, clean, well-dressed and, by outward appearance, able bodied. So why is he begging?
What you can’t see is what’s inside. He finished a year of college. Has a work history. Was married. Then, in short order, mental and physical illnesses slayed a promising future. Divorce, homelessness, and hospitalizations followed. Proof of his disability comes in the form of Supplementary Security Insurance (SSI.)
A social agency controls Smitty’s money, houses and supervises him, and gives him a small allowance from which he buys food. He’s well-fed, housed, and receives medical care. But that’s it.
I put myself in his place: Middle-aged. Diminished physical and mental capabilities that currently can’t be cured. Limited prospects. Few entertainment or travel options. Few options, period. Smitty yearns to be independent, yet that goal is elusive. For him, panhandling serves two purposes. It gives him a way to connect with people; he once held a customer service job and is very sociable. The extra money he earns also allows him to buy things beyond necessities, such as cigarettes, lottery tickets, a pair of winter gloves, a bit of hope.
Most panhandlers I talked with had hopes and dreams when they were young. Some lofty: Archeologist. Artist. Criminologist. NFL pro. WNBA pro. Others more prosaic: Chef. Construction worker. Plumber. Truck driver. One young man claimed he had no goals or dreams. Is that possible? Current realities have shrunken their goals and ability to achieve them: Independent living. A good job. A family. An education. Kicking a drug addiction.
All grew up in broken or otherwise challenged families, generally poor, sometimes abusive. In spite of that, nine graduated high school and five attended some college. All had employment, mostly low-paying jobs. But catastrophe struck each one. Brain damage from an auto accident. Leg injury from a bullet. Cancer, diabetes, COPD, heart murmur, and other chronic diseases. Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, anxiety, and paranoia.
Drugs play a role for some. Two otherwise healthy men are heroin addicts. Some use alcohol. Some smoke herb. All smoke cigarettes. Three play the lottery. Three vote. Ten believe in God. Eleven of the panhandlers have served time in prison. Five have served from one to four years, making it nearly impossible to find work or subsidized housing.
All live alone. Most have no family to depend on. Indeed only four have been married (now divorced) and only three have children, now gone from their lives.
JP is an expensive place to live. Seven panhandlers receive SSI of about $800 each. With additional help from social agencies who handle their money, they live in group homes under supervision and receive a small food allowance. Mass Health provides medical care. Five live on the street, sleeping in shelters or doorways or wherever.
Panhandling helps the homeless buy food and provides all with a few niceties as well as human contact. Perhaps you’ve felt the positive warmth and lively chatter of the man who sells the “Spare Change News” in front of CVS. The take from panhandling ranges from $20 to $100 per (long) day but is susceptible to weather. They’ve been panhandling for one to more than ten years and have few possessions. Nine own cellphones. Two have bicycles. No cars.
The men and women I interviewed are in desperate shape due to forces beyond their control. What can or should we do, if anything? Next month, I’ll share stories from policemen, shopkeepers, and residents to uncover “Who We Are.”
What has been your experience with panhandlers? Do you give directly to them? Please contribute to the survey. ([email protected])
(*Not real name.)
Gustaf Berger is a writer living in Jamaica Plain. He is the author of “Death Postponed.”