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Virginia Sellner (
Wed, 8 Apr 1998 09:46:57 -0600 (MDT)

Sunday, April 5, 1998

On Begging, Giving and Second Thoughts


There is a man who stands curbside in front of a
supermarket in my neighborhood selling his poems to
passing motorists. The price is whatever you want to pay.
They are not very good poems, but I occasionally pause and
buy a batch, not to encourage his poetical career but to
commend and support his entrepreneurial drive. He
creates. I buy. Capitalism at its purest.

          There is a woman named Willie who comes to our
house every Monday morning, driving a battered old pick-up
truck that goes slightly sideways down the street, to
collect our used newspapers. She is 76, all bent over with
age and arthritis, wearing sagging stockings and an old
watch cap. She moves haltingly, but always with a smile
and an optimistic word. I usually go out and give her $5
or $10 and a hug, for I admire her vastly. What pluck and

          Then there are the street vendors who stand all
day in the blistering sun, inhaling exhaust fumes, selling
oranges and peanuts at big intersections and freeway
on-ramps. The oranges are no bargain and the peanuts
almost invariably stale, but sometimes I buy them just
because I want to help someone so willing to help himself.

          There was also a street person--now disappeared
to who knows where--on the Third Street Promenade in Santa
Monica who carried a sign that said, "Why lie? I need a
beer." And another, a 50-something black man, whose line
was, "Could you help send a nice Jewish boy to college?"

          I have given them money, too, the first for his
honesty and the latter for his wit.

          Underneath this unpatterned layer of the
lamentably unfortunate is another class, another tier,
however, where the judgment call of whether to give money
is more complicated.

          Some carry placards that say. "Will work for
money," and I think, well, they will not work for money,
else they would be working, or trying to, like the knots
of men who gather every morning near Home Depot. So I pass
them up.

          Some are aggressively drunk, reeling in your
face, not even needing a drink right then, but planning
ahead. I don't give them money.

          Some seem plainly capable of work, but plainly
don't want to, vagabonds with backpacks who have opted out
of the system or never enlisted in it. I understand them,
even envy them a little, but feel no need to finance their
chosen lifestyle.

          Some want to work but have been downsized or let
go, or overwhelmed by money or health problems, rendered
suddenly homeless with no address, no phone, making it
difficult to get back in the system.

          Some are women, some of them beaten down
literally or figuratively, some just rendered homeless and
irrelevant by an accident of fate. I invariably think,
"That's somebody's daughter. That's somebody's mother."
And depending on how I feel that day, I offer them a
dollar or two. In this way at least, I am sexist.
Interestingly, some refuse--though I have never had a man

          Interesting, too, is that among the street
people and the panhandlers, I have never seen an Asian, a
European or a Latino--any kind of apparent immigrant, in
fact. Our homeless and mendicant appear to be all
home-grown, made in the U.S.A.

          Many on the streets are mentally ill, as many as
60%, the experts say, and many, obviously, are alcoholics
or drug addicts who might get sober or straight with some
help, and some self-help, if somebody intervened.

          But which are the able and which the crazy ones?
And which among the addicted might try to get straightened
out with a buck or two and a gentle nudge toward an AA
meeting? Maybe just one might. But which one?

          It is impossible to tell. So what to do when the
hand comes out? Sometimes I tell myself that there but for
the grace of God, or a gene slip, or a job loss, or a
crippling depression, go I. And when I think that way, I
dig down.

          Sometimes, when I am peevish, I walk on by,
trying not to look into their faces. But then I feel bad.
And sometimes I go back. But sometimes I don't. - - -
Former Newsweek and CBS Journalist Karl Fleming Is a
Communications Consultant. he Lives on the Westside

Copyright Los Angeles Times

 Speak only words of truth.
 Speak only of the good qualities of others.
 Be a confidant and carry no tales.
 Dhyani Ywahoo,"Voices of our Ancestors, Cherokee teachings from the Wisdom

Wyoming Coalition for the Homeless
P. O. Box 1232
Cheyenne, WY 82003