Women panhandle with small children at their sides, a trend that tugs at the heart A LITTLE CHANGE

June 17, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

The last day of May in Baltimore was like a Caribbean night -- palm-tree breezy and warm enough for short sleeves. And although the Tigers fixed the Orioles 7-6, it was still a fine night to be tucked inside Camden Yards.

Karen Johnson positioned herself and her 4-year-old daughter, Montia, near the ballpark and in the middle of the human traffic. Then, the mother waited.

Ben Harris of Silver Spring had just had a great night at the game with his wife. Walking back to his car, Mr. Harris passed several male panhandlers. The lone men with their hard-to-guess ages bring cardboard signs and paper cups here when the Orioles are in town. Mr. Harris heard their polite pleas ending with those pleases and thank-yous, and drive safely, sirs.

Then, Mr. Harris stopped on Conway Street. He stood almost directly over Ms. Johnson, who was sitting on the sidewalk by a chain-link-fenced parking lot. She was cradling her sleeping girl. It was almost 11 at night.

Mr. Harris looked like he wanted to cry. He emptied his pockets and maybe $6 or $7 spilled out into the mother's Styrofoam cup. "God bless," Ms. Johnson said, each time Mr. Harris evacuated a pocket. Then, he walked away and realized he had nothing left.

"I've got to find a MOST machine because I just gave her all my parking money," he said, nearly begging a stranger to tell him where he could find a money machine in this town.

"Maybe I'm a sucker. She may be going home to a better place than I am. But if she's not, then I hope I did some good," he said.

"You see, I have a son."

*

Women panhandling with children in tow are the latest wrinkle in the steady business of begging in Baltimore. Given the fact more women and children are using shelters and soup kitchens, it's not surprising to see more women begging on the streets with children, experts say.

Women with children panhandle around Camden Yards, work the lunch traffic at downtown intersections such as Mulberry at Charles streets, stand off ramps at the Jones Falls Expressway, or walk along Pratt Street across from the tourist-soaked Harborplace. The children hold their mothers' hands or sleep on their shoulders or in a stroller. And although they might be clean and healthy, these children are being exposed to a life of hopelessness, says Sue Fitzsimmons, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Social Services.

Possible long-term effects aside, women who panhandle with their kids make short-term gains. They have a competitive edge in Baltimore's community of panhandlers.

"Yes, it is a tactic to elicit white middle-class America to give you a buck," says Felicity Northcott, an anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University. "Are they manipulating us? Why not? We all manipulate the system. We do it at work to get what we want. We just do it in more private and less obvious ways."

Asking people for money is legal. The federal courts have ruled that begging is a form of free speech. It's how people beg that is regulated. The Baltimore City Council passed an "aggressive panhandling" law last year, making it a misdemeanor to use obscene language, block the path of a car or persistently beg for money after someone has refused. (Since January, police say they have made 17 arrests for "aggressive" panhandling in the downtown area.)

Ranks unknown

Pinpointing the number of panhandlers is difficult because of such factors as the weather, time of month and the lack of official statistics. Anecdotally, maybe 25 panhandlers a day will work in and around downtown Baltimore when the weather is agreeable, authorities estimate. Of these, six women might be out on a given day or night panhandling with their children.

"They come out more toward the end of the month, when they more or less have run out of money or food," says Truxon Sykes, president of the Baltimore Homeless Union. Mr. Sykes panhandled in Baltimore in the 1970s, a time when he remembers few, if any, women panhandling with children.

He estimates the total population of downtown panhandlers is about 300 people, including an estimated 100 women. Of these, about 40 women bring children along when they panhandle, he says.

Homeless advocates say too few addiction treatment centers, reductions in welfare grants for families and a lack of jobs and affordable housing have led to an increase in women panhandling. And because they typically can't afford day care, these mothers will continue to bring their children along with them.

For those on welfare, panhandling supplements public assistance, which often is not enough to live on. It's a legal and relatively safe way of getting money, says Ms. Fitzsimmons.

"The woman may be trying to be the best mother she can be," Ms. Fitzsimmons says. Then again, "I'm convinced a lot of them use the money they get from panhandling for drugs and alcohol."

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