CS Monitor 7/8/98 Homelessness-Humor article (fwd)

peace through reason (prop1@prop1.org)
Sun, 12 Jul 1998 07:58:04 -0400

WEDNESDAY, JULY 8, 1998=20

When the Homeless Use Humor to Fill Their Empty Cups

Marilyn Gardner=20

Columnist for The Christian Science Monitor

SAN FRANCISCO He stands on a corner near Union Square, one

              of many homeless men - and a few women -

              appealing for money on a summer weekend.

But instead of printing a generic "Homeless and hungry" request

on cardboard, he lightens his plea with humor, calling out,

"Spare some change for the residentially challenged?" A block

away, another needy man rattles coins in his paper cup and

holds a sign bearing a joking message: "My wife's been

kidnapped. I'm short 98=A2 for ransom." Nearby, a third man also

tries for laughs by waving a colorful whale hand puppet - and a

cup - at pedestrians.

Humor is not typically the stock-in-trade of the dispossessed.

But like merchants seeking to attract customers with advertising

jingles, these desperate citizens of the street hope their ploys

will capture the attention - and money - of shoppers, tourists,

and convention-goers.

Summer is the season when the homeless become nearly

invisible in many American cities. But here in San Francisco,

where they number between 12,000 and 17,000, their

conspicuous presence serves as an uncomfortable reminder of

two vastly different Americas. Despite a decade of prosperity,

the rising tide has clearly not lifted all boats.

Just ask Charlene Tschirhart, director of donor services for St.

Anthony Foundation here. On a single day last month, her

organization served hot meals to 3,000 people.

                In San Francisco,

                the homeless

                number between

                12,000 and 17,000.=20

"The Dow Jones looks so good," she says. "But in the same

year that we had such an economic boom, Congress cut food

stamps. Isn't that an incredible statement of our values?" She

adds, "There's more discouragement and more despair among

the poor, and more a feeling of alienation that the community out

there just doesn't get it."

In the past two years, 4,000 units of public housing have been

demolished here, the Coalition on Homelessness reports.

During the same period, 1,700 residents have lost disability

benefits under the Contract With America. And rents have

skyrocketed, with vacancy rates under 1 percent for even the

cheapest single-room-occupancy hotels.

Problems like these exist in many cities, of course. Fourteen

percent of Americans, Ms. Tschirhart notes, live below the

poverty level - $16,700 a year for a family of four. "I'm always

amazed that we don't see more people on the streets," she says.

To Americans with compassion fatigue, she says, "If you're

tired of looking at the poor, imagine how incredibly difficult it

is to be the person who is poor, trying to figure out how to get

the next meal, get housing and health care, and deal with

loneliness. Poverty is so alienating."

Still, for pedestrians walking a gantlet of outstretched hands,

sidewalk appeals raise difficult questions: To give or not to

give? If so, how much, and to whom? Not all donations go for

food or rent, as one unkempt man on Powell Street admits. His

sign reads: "Why lie? Need a beer." Financing addiction is not

what most donors have in mind.

It will take more than quarters and dollar bills stuffed into

Styrofoam cups to clear sidewalks and shelters. As Tschirhart

puts it, "We need to address this not just for the poor but for

society. We don't want to continue this way."

Addressing the problem of homelessness will require a

sustained national debate on housing policies, livable wages,

and affordable health care. It will mean not just looking up

approvingly at a sky-high stock market but also looking down

compassionately at the ragged survivors on the street, including

those who mask despair with humor as they try to stay afloat for

yet another day.

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