Highway ramps are panhandlers' bread & butter in San Francisco,

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Sat, 17 Apr 1999 09:50:18 -0700 (PDT)


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http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/examiner/archive/1999/03/04/NEWS
7444.dtl
FWD  San Francisco Examiner - March 4, 1999

     RAMPS ARE BREAD AND BUTTER FOR CITY'S BEGGARS

     Marianne Costantinou of the Examiner staff

It's just a bit of concrete, a pavement like any other,
stepped on, spit on, passed by cars and pedestrians, worth
hardly a glance.

But for a few hours a day, it's his spot.

For panhandlers like Mike Brown, a spot on a median strip
or by the ramp of a highway is more than just a piece of
sidewalk.

Most panhandlers are homeless and without jobs. The spot
is where they work, where they earn the money to stay alive
- for food, for rent, and yes, some admit, for drugs.

On the streets of San Francisco, the panhandlers with
their handwritten cardboard signs are a familiar sight.
Too familiar, says Supervisor Amos Brown, who wants to
find a legal way to oust them from busy roadways.

On Monday, Brown asked the city attorney to investigate
whether there are laws banning panhandling on medians and
freeway ramps, and if not, whether such legislation could
be drafted.

Brown called the panhandlers a distraction, saying they
posed a traffic danger.

Random drives this week along Van Ness Avenue, a popular
strip for panhandlers, and on the ramps of Interstate 80,
found about two dozen panhandlers with their signs. All
but one sign holder stood silent and nearly motionless in
their spots, moving only to reach out for a donation from a
driver, speaking only to give their thanks. No one
appeared to block traffic.

News that their coveted spots might be threatened was met
largely with resignation. It was just another bad break.

Many panhandlers said their spots were not just a place to
make a buck. For the hours they're standing there, with a
sign up or a hand out, that piece of sidewalk is theirs.
For those who have nothing, it's something they can call
their own, if only for a while.

"That's their bread and butter,"  said Mike Brown, 48,
who used to be a middle manager in a computer hardware
company before losing his job six years ago and suffering
a nervous breakdown. Now he works at Van Ness Avenue and
Hayes Street.

"They've had their dignity stripped. The only thing
they've got is the two square feet they're standing on."

But not all square feet of pavement are created equal. The
most lucrative spots, worth $20 to $30 in less than eight
hours most days, are at the freeway offramps.

Offramps are best because they get motorists who are just
arriving in The City, said Herman Daniels, 42, a Vietnam
veteran who lost his job two months ago as a baggage
handler at San Francisco International Airport.

Those just pulling into The City are more likely to reach
into their wallets or coin trays because they haven't yet
become weary of all the beggars, Daniels said.

"I figured I get them before anybody else gets them,"  he
said at the U.S. 101 offramp at Mission Street and Duboce
Avenue. Most who give will give a dollar. Nicer cars give
less, many said.

Spots are like turfs. Veteran panhandlers claim certain
spots as theirs, getting up before the morning commute to
stake their claim. Newcomers like Daniels honor
seniority, and wait until the regulars leave before
taking over, usually around midafternoon.

But sometimes there are turf wars, said Robert, 40, a
former scooter messenger who said everyone on the street
calls him Harry. He likes the I-80 onramp at Fifth Street
during the evening commute, but sometimes he's pushed out
by a competing panhandler.

"A big guy will stand in front of you and nudge you out of
the way,"  he said.  "It's a matter of survival out
here."

Sometimes, a California Highway Patrol officer will ask
him to leave. Soliciting within 500 feet of a highway ramp
is against state law, said CHP Officer Shawn Chase, a
spokesman for the San Francisco division. About 30
tickets are issued yearly in The City, but homeless people
rarely show up in court.

>On city streets, municipal codes ban aggressive
panhandling and street obstruction, but tickets are
rare. No one has been prosecuted for begging, said
District Attorney Terence Hallinan.

Many panhandlers said they move on when challenged by
police or by other homeless people. They don't want any
trouble.

Besides, said Daniels, he doesn't want to feel
territorial. It helps him think of panhandling as only
temporary.

"I don't want it to be my corner,"  said Daniels.  "I
don't want to be out here."

Although some will stay on their spot all day, like a
regular eight-hour work shift, many will move on once they
get enough money to cover their needs. The other day,
Daniels was hoping to make $20 to get something to eat and
a haircut so he could look for work.

Standing at a nearby intersection, waiting his turn for
Daniels' spot, was Dan Baragno, 37, homeless for two
years. He said he lost his house in Humboldt County after
being busted for growing pot.

"How long you been here?"  he asked Daniels.  "You know
anybody waiting for this spot?"

Several panhandlers admitted that, true to stereotype,
they do use some of the money to buy liquor or drugs - just
like working people do. But they insist that most of the
money is used to survive, to pay for a meal, or with luck, a
night in a hotel.

It's not easy money. They find begging humiliating.

"I've cried a few times on this ramp,"  said Robert.
 "You look in people's eyes. They're afraid of us. Or they
despise us because they think "You should be out working.'

"I'd rather be doing anything but this."

END FORWARD

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