Opinion » Commentaries

I hate transients

Or why SLO’s new panhandling ordinance is A-Okay

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I hate transients. I hate watching them tramp along the sidewalks with their $800 Gibson guitars, dragging their sad looking dogs—or worse, cats—on a leash. I hate walking past them as they sit on public benches begging for money.
 
Some go for the cutesy approach: a sign that reads, “I bet you can’t hit me with a quarter,� or “I’m not going to lie, I want beer money,� or “I’m close to cannibalism. Don’t make me eat this dirty bum next to me.�
 
I look at them and think, “Get a freakin’ job, you lazy good-for- nothings!� I never say it, though. When they ask me for “spare change,� whatever that is, I always say the same thing, “No, sorry.�
 
Let me tell you a story. I was coming out of a fast food joint, in a rush to go from my morning job to my afternoon job, and some guy opened the door of the restaurant as I was exiting.
 
“Thanks,� I said.
 
“Hey, can you spare a dollar?� he asked.
 
“No, sorry,� I said, rushing past him.
 
It didn’t end there, though. Instead, he began following me.
“No, sorry? No, sorry?� he mocked me. “That’s great! What would Jesus do? Would he just say, ‘No, sorry?’ I’m out here starving on the street and all you can say is ‘No, sorry?’�
I stopped in my tracks, turned, and looked at him: about 30-years-old, 5’8�, a chubby 250 pounds.

“Buddy, you’re about 50 pounds past starving,� I said icily. “But if you’re so hungry, here.�

Then I reached into my bag and held out my sandwich.

“You can have this,� I said, “but I think you’re a jerk.�
 
“Fuck you!� he screamed. “Fuck you, you asshole. No way!�
 
Then he stormed across the parking lot and got into his vehicle, a mid-‘70s panel van, the kind that the coolest guy in high school might have driven: clean mustard-colored paint, a smoked-glass octagonal window in the back corner, custom rims.
 
At that moment, I could have beaten him senseless, but as I began to calm down, I started to think: Why do I hate these transients? I’m a liberal guy! I understand that homelessness happens. I’m sympathetic toward people living hand-to-mouth.
 
I realize that part of my hatred stems from jealousy. When I see these young, able-bodied folks hanging around all day, sitting in the sun, laughing, braiding each other’s dreadlocks, I envy them their freedom. I want to hang out with my friends and drink beer in the sunshine, pet my dog, strum my guitar. I can’t, though. I have two jobs, a mortgage, and I frequently work 12-hour days, or longer.
 
But that’s not the real source of my hatred, because I accept that I made a choice to follow the “American Dream,� which is in many ways a 30-year commitment to indentured servitude (but that’s a different commentary!). No, the real source of my hatred is the knowledge that these bums are distracting me and probably you from the real problem of homelessness in SLO County.
 
We live in an area where wages are low and living expenses are high. There are plenty of people who work hard but are living paycheck to paycheck. Sometimes events conspire and people find they can’t pay their rent, can’t feed themselves, can’t take care of their kids. These people need help and deserve help, and they can get it at the Maxine Lewis Memorial Homeless Shelter, the Prado Road Day Center, the People’s Kitchen, the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo.
 
These organizations help folks who have fallen on tough times pick themselves up again. They offer a hot meal, a dry place to sleep, a place to wash clothes, take care of kids, and call for employment. But these organizations and the services they offer are suffering from lack of funds.
 
Let me tell you another story. A few years back, New Times staff writer Steve Jones, now the News Editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, put on some tie-dyed attire he used to wear when he was chasing the Grateful Dead around, and he went downtown and sat on a bench with a cup and asked people for money. He was writing a story about panhandling in SLO. After four hours he counted out his loot: $20. He made $5 an hour for sitting around, which was just 25¢ less than the prevailing minimum wage at the time, and he didn’t have to pay taxes on it. He and I went to McCarthy’s and drank beer on that $20.
 
What’s my point?
 
Lots of people in San Luis Obispo are generous, but when they give money to an able-bodied transient, they’re misdirecting their generosity. Most of these bums begging on the street are going to take your money and buy a $5 pack of cigarettes or a six-pack of cheap beer. Meanwhile, a single mom and her little kid are going to sleep in a 1982 Toyota Celica if the Maxine Lewis Memorial Homeless Shelter runs out of funds.
 
That’s why SLO-Town’s new transient laws are a good idea. The police and business owners need some tools to keep these panhandlers away from their business and customers, and a way to limit the amount of time they can lazily bum around on downtown benches harassing people.
 
Look, I know that many of the people begging on the street downtown have real problems: mental illness, addiction, or worse. It’s a sad state of affairs that our society doesn’t provide a better social safety net for such people. Others are military veterans, many disabled. It’s also sad that our government has failed to take care of them, too. While both these classes of homeless—the afflicted and the disabled—need and deserve help, giving them money on the street is hardly a solution.
 
The crumpled dollar bill you hand over to a transient is money that would be better spent on an organization that provides homeless services. Instead, your panhandled dollar compounds the problem by sending a message that SLO-Town is easy pickings. That message attracts more able-bodied transients, whose increased begging takes more money out of the coffers of organizations that can really do something to end the problem.
 
There is no question that collectively as a society we should do a better job helping people with addictions, people who are disabled, people with mental illness, and military veterans. Opinions on how to do that vary. Some suggest more government programs, though our government has demonstrated a marked incompetence in its administration of social services. Others think private charities should step up, yet clearly they haven’t and many desperate folks’ needs have not been met. Frankly, I don’t pretend to know the answer to these societal problems, but I do know — for all the reasons I’ve already stated — that handing money to people on the street does little but make the problem worse.
 
We’re a generous community; the very existence of organizations such as those named above proves that. You can choose to give your hard-earned money to a transient, or you can exercise your generosity by giving money to local organizations that help people help themselves. Don’t let yourself be distracted; put your generosity to work where it will do the most good. ∆

Glen Starkey is a New Times staff writer. Email him at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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