As Gap Widens,Homeless Increase


February 07, 1991|By J. PETER SABONIS

I get sick of the homeless, and I get paid to work for them. It happens when I walk through the city and suddenly realize after five blocks that I've left the office wearing a sandwich board saying ''Ask this man for money.''

It happens more often when I look the part of an attorney. When I look like a student, or a jogger, the requests for money diminish and often times cease, yet the amount of money in my pocket remains constant. I've registered my complaint with some of these street entrepreneurs. They seem surprisingly quick to understand the pitfalls of judging by appearance only, and vow to collect in a less discriminatory fashion. Complaints, however, cost 25 cents.

Panhandling, or begging, is as old as civilization. The Old Testament Book of Sirach warns that it is ''better to be dead than a beggar,'' and the New Testament is replete with references to beggars at roadsides and public areas, usually afflicted with bodily infirmities. In fact, Saints Peter and John were confronted by such a crippled man on their way inside the temple and, lacking any spare change, commanded the beggar to walk. Needless to say, he was healed.

But that was different. Those beggars were usually prostrate, with a cup, looking up and asking the well-to-do to look down -- for a moment. Most of the beggars of today, however, stand upright, look us in the eye, and demand, as if they had some entitlement, a simple, more equitable income redistribution. They assail and intimidate,'' as a United States District Court judge said in Young v. NYC Transit, a case upholding New York's crackdown on subway panhandling.

This is particularly troubling for those of us who advocate for the homeless. When I speak of the homeless to strangers, neighbors, colleagues, and even children in Sunday school, the most frequent response I get is a story about a panhandler. I am then asked to render judgment on the beggar's credibility (a rather amusing request given the usual public perception of my profession).

While panhandlers, typically single and male, are often homeless, the homeless are not simply panhandlers. The state Homeless Service Program reports that families comprise 43 percent of the homeless, and homeless women outnumber homeless men in more than half of our counties. Families make up more than 75 percent of the homeless in Baltimore, Prince George's, Charles, St. Mary's, Calvert, Caroline and Somerset counties.

But while panhandlers may not be the appropriate standard bearer for the homeless, they may very well be representative of something far more significant: the ever increasing militancy potential of the poor. And in this sense, the change in their numbers and tactics should not be viewed casually.

The Census Bureau reports that the most affluent fifth of America fared quite well during the 1980s, increasing its wealth in real terms by 14 percent. The poor and the programs they rely on, however, became sacrifices for the fiscal gods.

The HUD budget was slashed drastically. The remainder was then stolen by real estate agents and bureaucrats. Disability rolls were trimmed. Cities, which bear a disproportionate share of the poor, had their aid all but eliminated. The state has now begun its assault with this week's proposal to curtail General Public Assistance, a state welfare program that happens to serve the bulk of the single, male, homeless population.

The response by the poor has been, and will continue to be, unorganized and apolitical. But class warfare need not take place only upon the barricade. With each mugging, each senseless act of violence, each intimidating panhandler, our caste conflict is continued.

As the gap between the rich and poor widens, there will be more homeless. There will be more panhandlers. Most likely, they will not appear to be ''worthy'' at all. For the ''worthy'' poor are as much a fiction as the worthy rich -- or the worthy human being for that matter.

And they will increasingly tug at our sleeves, shout at us, and interfere with our lives for a brief moment. They will ask simply for themselves, but they speak for an entire growing underclass. Pass them by if you wish. Command them by law, as New York city did, to be silent. Take away the pittance in welfare to which they're now entitled. Their numbers will only increase.

J. Peter Sabonis is deputy director of the Homeless Persons Representation Project.

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