SF Anti-begging drive splits Castro area, known for tolerance FWD

Tom Boland (wgcp@earthlink.net)
Tue, 19 May 1998 17:04:33 -0700 (PDT)

FWD  San Francisco Chronicle - 8/05/12/MN71553.DTL


     Elaine Herscher, Chronicle Staff Writer

Once, when the Rev. Jim Mitulski walked down Castro Street, he saw a
compassionate neighborhood that had survived the turmoil of gay
liberation and AIDS to become a sanctuary for people who found comfort
nowhere else.

When Patrick Batt walked the same route, he saw a neighborhood on the
brink: filthy streets, public urination, people pressing strangers for

Both men love the Castro and have lived and worked there for years.
But in recent months, they've been on opposite sides of a
clean-up-the-Castro campaign that advocates say is necessary to save
the world-famous gay mecca and critics say is costing the neighborhood
its soul.

A merchants group headed by Batt launched what it calls CPR --
Community Pride and Revitalization -- earlier this year. The
centerpiece was a poster campaign that began last month exhorting
residents and visitors to ``Create Change, Don't Hand It Out.''
Instead of dropping quarters into panhandlers' palms, merchants said,
give to one of three agencies that help homeless and other needy

The agencies endorsed the merchants' efforts, and now anti-
panhandling posters adorn every other shop window on Castro Street.

The campaign, along with stepped-up police presence that retailers
requested, has made panhandlers scarce.

Batt and other merchants are adamant they are not anti-homeless, and
they do not expect that giving to charity will cure homelessness. But
handing money to panhandlers didn't seem to be solving the problem,
either, and in the meantime the neighborhood was becoming a turnoff to
residents and visitors who are the economic lifeblood of the Castro.

``This is a compassionate approach to the issue,'' said Jeff Ward, CPR
chairman. ``I think a lot of people on the street know that this
community, because of what it's been through in the last 15 years, is
compassionate. I'm not trying to thwart that compassion. I'm just
saying we shouldn't be blindly compassionate.''

Mitulski, whose church has been feeding hungry people twice a week,
said the anti-panhandling campaign is a blot on the Castro's legacy.

``This neighborhood is one that presses boundaries. So are we
surprised when people come here who don't fit anywhere else?'' said
Mitulski, co-pastor of the neighborhood's mostly gay and lesbian
Metropolitan Community Church.

Neighborhood residents have noticed more panhandlers in the last two
years, a trend that increased after the city drove homeless people out
of Golden Gate Park six months ago.

``We have a sincere desire to help these people and to see them do
well, but we can't help them,'' said John Downey, co-owner of P.O.
Plus on Castro Street, who defines himself as a liberal.

He and other merchants believe that being generous to panhandlers
leads to habitual vagrancy, which breeds behavior that degrades the
neighborhood. Downey said he scrubs human feces from the alcove in
front of his store as often as three times a week.

``We don't have the expertise or the resources to solve substance
abuse and other problems,'' he said. ``We made a business decision to
let the consultants handle the problem.''

But a 27-year-old panhandler named Sean, whose regular post is in
front of a supermarket on 18th Street, said he and many others cannot
benefit from the three agencies that have endorsed the merchants'

Larkin Street Youth Center helps young runaways; Dolores Street
Community Services serves mostly Latino men; and New Leaf serves those
with mental health and substance abuse problems.

``People panhandle for immediacy,'' Sean said. ``It's great to tell me
to get a job and access services, but how do I eat tonight?''

Mitulski and other critics say the neighborhood's retailers simply
want panhandlers to go away and are creating a palatable but useless

``How's this going to help? They're going to leave this neighborhood
and go into another neighborhood. That's not a compassionate
response,'' said Tommi Avicolli Mecca, who works in the neighborhood's
A Different Light bookstore.

``Who is the Castro for? Is it a tourist theme park?'' Mitulski said.

Tourism is a mainstay of the neighborhood; 14 percent of visitors to
San Francisco spend money in the Castro. Many of the businesses depend
more on tourists than they do on locals. About 60 percent of the
receipts at the card and gift store that Ward manages, Does Your
Father Know?, comes from out-of-towners.

Batt said that if his association hadn't stepped in, eventually there
might be no gay mecca left for anyone -- including the panhandlers who
call the Castro home.

Trevor Hailey has run a walking tour of the Castro from her home for
eight years. But recently, she said, panhandling has gotten so
aggressive that it is hard for her to function.

She'll be standing with a group across from the Castro Theatre
explaining its rich history when someone will approach demanding

``They get in my face and my group's face and totally interrupt me and
won't move,'' Hailey said. ``When people don't respond, they cuss us
out. I either have to have a confrontation or take my group and move.
When that happens, the tour is wrecked. It's unfair, the total lack of
respect and civility for other people.''

There are people in need who are polite, she says, but many who hassle
her are ``young, straight white men.''

``The most privileged group in America out there is asking this
gray-haired lesbian for money,'' she said. ``When an area represents
tolerance and freedom, the hard- core cash in. Would they tolerate
this in Pacific Heights? No.''

The merchants say they are most frustrated by ``professional
panhandlers'' who have decided the world owes them a living.

``Basically, what I hear from these people over and over again is that
they're victims,'' Batt said. ``They're victims of society, of the
government, of Vietnam. And they're choosing to victimize this

Most panhandlers in the Castro are men. Some are homeless and sleep in
the neighborhood, and some get general assistance but not enough to
live on. Some are referred to by older panhandlers as ``gutter
punks,'' youths in their teens and early 20s who are not necessarily

And some are runaway gay or lesbian teens. Mecca often finds them in
his bookstore, thumbing through the poetry section.

``They come here expecting to find Nirvana. Instead they find high
rents, minimum wage jobs. They find a queer community of adults that
doesn't want to deal with them,'' he said. ``How do you distinguish
between a professional panhandler and some kid who came here thinking
this was the queer mecca?''

The campaign's detractors also wonder whether the Castro, with its pop
icon gift shops, sleek bars and trendy clothing stores, has become a
bit too pretty.

``There's a growing disparity between the haves and the have- nots in
the queer community,'' Mecca said. ``We've become a little too
mainstream. We've become a little too upwardly mobile.''

Naturally, the merchants chafe at the characterization. Some support
both the anti-panhandling campaign and the church's food program.

Batt argues that the issue is not so black and white. The way he sees
it, a vibrant economy will only give the Castro more clout at City
Hall. More clout will lead to more services. Already, because the
merchants are pushing, the city is looking into assigning an outreach
worker to the Castro, he says.

``We're not the bad guys here,'' Batt said.

Even Mitulski admits that dissension has its virtues.

``The whole neighborhood was in shock and on hold for years,'' he
said. ``Now there's a lot of renewed energy, and people want to give
back. Even the controversy in the neighborhood is a sign of life.''


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