is panhandling work?

root - Posted on 25 May 2001

by Dee Gray and Richard Ransom

This interview first appeared in POOR Magazine, Volume 3. Titled "WORK," the purpose of this issue is to challenge our society’s narrow definitions of so-called "legitimate" labor. POOR maintains that "work" must be defined by the workers themselves, and is dedicated to presenting the voices of workers who too often labor unrecognized and unheard.

We’re examining the notion of panhandling or sparechanging as work, because at POOR magazine we consider it a form of Micro-Business, or work. The following is a transcript from the ongoing writer-facilitation dialogue between Dee Gray, co-editor of POOR and Richard X at his work site, located near Stockton and O’Farrell Streets in downtown San Francisco.

Dee: Let’s just start with…how many days per week do you work?

RX: Seven.

Dee: And what would you say are your hours of business each day?

RX: Well, I normally start anywhere from six to eight in the morning and go all the way through to nine or ten o’clock at night, with a couple of breaks in between that last maybe an hour each.

Dee: And those would be like a dinner break?

RX: Yeah.

Dee: Do you have to take any buses to work?

RX: No.

Dee: What happens at your work when it rains, or in very cold weather?

RX: It’s just another day…I’m still out here…rain or shine.

Dee: Do you live inside or outside? Do you live in a hotel sometimes or…?

RX: Basically inside…a shelter type situation.

Dee: Do you have to navigate between the shelter systems or are you stabilized for now?

RX: Stabilized as you can be within the shelter environment.

Dee: What hours do you approximately sleep?

RX: It depends, I usually get to sleep about twelve-thirty or one. I’m up at 5:30 am to start work again.

Dee: How does this job affect your health?

RX: It effects my health very seriously in that I have what’s called venous stasis ulcers, which are skin ulcers caused by poor circulation in the lower extremities, the legs. Ulcers are sores, if you didn’t know. And the fact that I’m on my feet for so many hours a day aggravates them.

Dee: Are the ulcers impacted or made worse by the work?

RX: Yeah, yeah.

Dee: I understand you also have emphysema?

RX: Yes.

Dee: And of course, the cold exacerbates that.

RX: Yes.

Dee: Okay, so when you health gets really bad, where do you go for health care?

RX: General Hospital, basically.

Dee: How long do you usually wait?

RX: Anywhere from 2 to 4 hours.

Dee: Are you well treated, would you say?

RX: Where, at the hospital?

Dee: Yeah.

RX: That’s relative to who’s treating me.

Dee: I heard that (laughter)…I know what you mean. And how about dental care?

RX: At the hospital, if I can.

Dee: What happens if you do get really sick? Do you ever take the day off?

RX: It depends on how really sick I am.

Dee: Have there been times that you’ve…been out here with active emphysema and feeling really bad?

RX: Well, there have been times I’ve been out here and not wanted to be out here, but my needs necessitate that I be out here. In other words, my health takes a back seat.

Dee: Let’s talk about harassment on the job. Can you tell us a little about that?

RX: Okay. There is a group or should I say, a team of people called the Ambassadors, whose job was primarily designed to help tourists out, by way of giving direction, just helpful hints about where to go, where not to go, who to talk to, who not to talk to.

But in fact, to my understanding, they are contracted by different stores, different companies, to keep undesirables- I guess I would be listed as an undesirable- panhandlers and drunks and so forth, off of their property, which brings about some interesting situations. For some reason, I have become the number one priority with this group of Ambassadors. And I can say honestly that I have brought some of this on in that this one particular company, the Ellis-O’Farrell garage, which is one of their contractees, I have been on their building site any number of times, because the flow of traffic into the garage is where I get my money. People are more apt to give money if they don’t have to change the direction that they’re walking.

Dee: So, that’s your work site?

RX: One of my work sites, one of my best work sites…I have a good rapport with the police officers in the area. They can attest to the fact that I have never been aggressive, never been accused of being aggressive.

Dee: I would agree.

RX: Okay, I came to the conclusion that because these people were hell bent on, to my way of thinking, destroying my livelihood, I said I’m going to get off their property, get on the curb side, city property, and continue my work.

Dee: Right.

RX: As you can see behind you, there’s a No Trespassing sign. That was put up primarily for me. So that they would have me or have the tools to hopefully get me arrested and out of the way. This is the way I look at it, and I believe that’s the way it is.

Dee: Have they called the police?

RX: Oh, yeah.

Dee: Many times?

RX: The police have been called 3 or 4 times. A couple of times were valid, a couple of times they outright lied and said I was standing on their property when I wasn’t, which brings me to another point. Because I am legal on the curbside, they have taken it upon themselves to lie to the police and say that I am on their property when I’m not. If some of the Ambassadors would tell the truth, they would attest to that fact, because the watch me. I’ve overheard them asking on their walkie-talkies, "Where is Mr. X?"

Dee: Here comes one right now…(a red jacketed Ambassador passes us, talking into his walkie-talkie about us and Mr. X)

RX: When the police have come, because my rapport is somewhat good with them, basically what they told me was, Mr. X, for the day or a couple if days, just kind of move on. Which I didn’t want to do and in one instance I challenged them, because I am legal on the curb. You know.

Dee: Right, panhandling is not illegal in San Francisco…

RX: As long as you’re not being aggressive and chasing people down the street and jumping on their back and all that.

Dee: Which you are definitely not.

RX: They want to get a court order to have me kept away 100 feet from any of their buildings…you know, kind of like a stay away order. I was told by one of the Ambassadors that I had to be 100 feet form the building. Now, this came from the Ambassadors, who in no way represent the law. I have not been told by any law enforcement officers. I have not received anything in print attesting to this fact, so as you can see, I’m not 100 feet from the building, nor do I plan to be, until I’m either told by a police officer, or in writing from a judge…you know.

Dee: Of course that kind of stay away order would be illegal as you are standing on city property, not on their property. Here comes another Ambassador talking into her walkie-talkie.

RX: Oh, yeah, she’s letting them know that I’m talking to somebody with a microphone. It all started when Karin Flood, the director of the Ambassadors, instructed her workers to take pictures of all the panhandlers and to label them as to what they either know or think that they do with their money. That is to say, if a person is a drunk, under his picture he’s labeled Joe Blow, Drunk or Joe Blow, Drug User. The lady had the unmitigated gall to come up to me one day and ask me what I did with my money. I in turn asked her what she did with her money. She didn’t take too kindly to this, obviously. But this is the extent that these people go to. Now, granted they do work with the police, because they’ve been told by the police to inform them of any crimes they see or so forth, but in my case I think- and this doesn’t involve the police, this is just with the Ambassadors themselves- they have somehow tagged me as the guy to watch at all times. And I cannot figure out why this is, because I’m really not doing anything wrong other than violating the building code by being up against the building, but I don’t do that anymore.

Dee: So now it’s becoming harassment…

RX: Well, I have to say in all fairness, in the last couple of days, it seems to have subsided somewhat.

Dee: Okay.

RX: But I do not think it’s over.

Dee: I want to ask you…do you think panhandling is a job, self-employment?

RX: I most definitely do. It’s probably one of the hardest jobs you can do.

Dee: What are your job duties? In other words, either you have to ask people to give you money or they just give it to you…or?

RX: There are different approaches…each panhandler has his own method, but there are a couple of things that have to be, that have to run true if you’re going to be successful and not violate any laws. Number one, you have to be courteous. Number two, you have to be polite. Your appearance can add or not add to what you get. I’m not too sure about that, but I know one thing, you have to be courteous, because nobody’s obliged to give you a dime. And myself, I try to have a kind word for everybody that passes. I speak…because I’m under the impression that I might not get a dime today, but if I’m courteous to this person, somewhere down the line I’m going to get something.

Dee: It’s a sales technique…but what’s going on with panhandling? Would you say it’s guilt? What are the dynamics?

RX: I think it’s any number of things. I think with some people it’s guilt. I think with others it’s a genuine concern. I think with some people it’s a "here, look at me" thing: I’m giving to this down and out person.

Dee: So, we’re thinking in long range terms, in terms of getting street vendors and panhandlers actual benefits, like health benefits, stuff like that- do you think you should get benefits, for all your hard work, like the regular City worker’s comp benefits, the whole thing?

RX: Sure.

Dee: And of course, retirement benefits, because, you know, the strength that you have to do this job I can’t imagine you having forever. Now then, can you open a checking account or do you have one already?

RX: No, I don’t.

Dee: Did you have trouble getting one, or don’t you care for one?

RX: I wouldn’t because it might raise some questions that I’d have to answer that I wouldn’t necessarily want to answer, namely form that agency that we all know and love that comes around every April.

Dee: With your permission, let’s cover a little bit of your history. Did you go to college? What kinds of jobs have you held in the past?

RX: Before my health got bad, I was a presser and tailor, dry cleaner, presser, tailor. I worked with clothes, in other words…I was employed by Brooks Brothers for about eight years. I’ve worked at any number of cleaners around the Bay Area. I have a year of college.

Dee: Were you a Union member?

RX: Yeah.

Dee: …and then your health got bad?

RX: Yeah, my health got bad, I got laid off, my wife came down with cancer. I kind of went off the deep end, which kind of led me to where I am now.

Dee: So, it’s an emotional and a physical kind of breakdown?

RX: Right, right.

Dee: So maybe self-employment or being an entrepreneur, if we look at it this way, is a way that you, Richard, can access employment. It’s your own hours, your own thing, but you work really hard; I can attest to that fact.

Two days after this dialogue, Richard was arrested in Union Square and told by a San Francisco police officer that, based on a letter received form the Ambassadors, "he should not come within 100 yards of Union Square" (a downtown SF shopping district). This police officer had no stay away order or Temporary Restraining Order. But a very intimidated Mr. X has now moved his work site to a low visibility area of Market Street where he hardly makes enough money for his lunch every day. POOR Magazine’s advocacy project is desperately attempting to attain pro-bono legal representation for Mr. X.

Richard X is a co-author of this on-going dialogue through POOR Magazine’s writer-facilitation project, a program designed to bring the POOR Magazine pre-publishing workshops, which include economic and legal advocacy, to outdoor locations for writers and artists who are unable to participate in structured or conventional indoor workshops, in an attempt to bring the "voices" and expertise of severely underserved populations into the media, while also providing much needed services.

Due to Business Improvement Districts’ (B.I.D.’s) corporate interests, urban gentrification and encroachment, several cities and states are currently attempting, or have already succeeded in, ejecting panhandlers and street newspaper vendors, even though this is an abuse of their First Amendment rights, and a further example of unfair harassment of the poor and powerless members of our society. In New York, Guiliani started with panhandlers and street newspaper vendors, forcing them out of terminals and subways, and has now moved on to all other outdoor business people, such as artists and vendors. In the Castro area of San Francisco, neighborhood businesses have launched a campaign, "Don’t give change, create change," advising people not to give change to panhandlers. In Atlanta and other parts of the U.S. they have made panhandling illegal altogether, furthering the criminalization and incarceration of the poor.


To resist these abuses you must join forces with other organizations dealing with these issues; In San Francisco, please call Coalition on Homelessness at (415) 346-9693. In New York, call Street News at (718) 268-5165.

Fight Business Improvement District campaigns when they are launched, like the upcoming BID in San Francisco by the City Center Partnership, i.e., the corporation consortium that created the private security firm discussed in this article, the "Ambassadors."

Our advice for a citizen encountering a panhandler is, rather than be intimidated by the panhandler, you can choose to support him or her, just like anyone attempting to sell you a product. As well, you don’t need to be concerned with what he or she does with his or her "income," i.e., the support you give or whether their story is "real," anymore than you would be concerned what any other "worker" does with his or her income


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