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opinion
by tiny

Who's the real beggar?

THE OTHER DAY a pit started to form in my gut – a pit I hadn't felt since my food stamps were cut and I knew I would have to panhandle or borrow money just to get food for me and my mother.

This time the pit was caused by the release of Sup. Gavin Newsom's "23-point plan to end homelessness," a frightening template for Giuliani-style homeless "services" including everything from fingerprint imaging to investigating pup tents, beginning with legislation to criminalize panhandling on the median strips in San Francisco.

Revulsion, fear, sorrow, guilt, or hate – which human emotion do you feel when you see someone panhandling for money? Are these uncomfortable feelings? Are they so uncomfortable that the people causing the feelings should be legislated and criminalized out of sight so as to never make the heinous mistake of making you feel guilty or angry again?

As Newsom wrestles the job of poverty police officer away from the hands of Amos, Jerry, and Willie Brown, running his soon-to-be-announced mayoral campaign on the backs of houseless and poor San Franciscans, I find it odd that he not only has never experienced any remote form of poverty himself, but also didn't consult with any homeless-service providers or homeless folks to create his 23-point plan. The plan also seems to have been created without much research into the state and local cutbacks being made in homeless services and welfare funding, which are already devastating existing programs. Maybe his plan was based on the power lunches he's been having lately with big developers who are responsible for shelter programs in New York City's business improvement districts.

What is panhandling, anyway? Several staff writers at Poor Magazine argue that panhandling, as opposed to "begging," is a form of unrecognized work – replete with scheduled shifts, intensive labor, and difficult work conditions. In fact, it's one of the hardest jobs a person can do.

By the same token, I would submit that it's all really about the context or frame of reference: When Newsom asks San Francisco residents, supporters, friends, and family for money, he's not called a beggar. Due to his position in society, he's respectfully described as "soliciting" for campaign contributions. When an Enron executive gets a friend to ask the Treasury Department to ease off on the company's billion-dollar debt, he's just "negotiating a deal."

Perhaps when you receive Newsom's next four-color flyer in the mail, you should send it back to his office and accuse him of being a "lazy beggar who should get a real job."

So what are we poor folks proposing to do about homelessness? Well, there's an alternative plan being proposed by the Coalition on Homelessness and several other Bay Area organizations, which, unlike Newsom's proposal, was created with input and help from the experts in homelessness and poverty: homeless and formerly homeless folks. It attempts to build on the system that is already in place, rather than re-create the wheel to win votes.

This proposal includes redirecting funds from ineffective "housing management programs" like Connecting Point – which spends $500,000 to place four families a week into one of the four family shelters in the city – to the development of more long-term housing resources that would permanently solve the problem of homelessness for poor families.

How many times can an oppressed community be exploited for one person's political gain? Poverty crimes such as panhandling, shopping-cart use, and welfare dependency will continue as long as we live in a society based on an unequal distribution of power and wealth. As for panhandling, if you're not going to share some of your wealth (whether it's a quarter or the money for a rent check), perhaps you should live with those feelings no matter how uncomfortable they might be. Or better yet, call up Newsom's office and ask him for a financial contribution for the panhandler in your neighborhood.

Tiny is the previously homeless, currently at-risk coeditor of Poor Magazine and poornewsnetwork.org.